Four Steps to Better Managing Your To-Do List

By Emily Barnes

Raise your hand if The List (your to-do list) is as long as your arm! If you add more to-do’s in a day than you check off in a day, you might be a bona fide Monkey Farmer. I’d bet you the first jungle harvest that you really want to be a Monkey Charmer. But how does a self-afflicted List Maker, Breaker, Taker or Faker (one who adds completed tasks to a perfectly enormous list just to check them off) move from farming to charming that clinging monkey right off the back? I’ll tell you in a minute.

First, if there’s a ring of familiarity to all this monkey talk, you might remember a book, “The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey,” by William Oncken, et al., written over ten years ago. The Monkey is a metaphor for the tasks that are yours to complete. Whenever someone gives you a task to do they are putting a monkey on your back and you have to do something to get it off. Accept enough tasks and you can be weighed down by all those monkeys. Oncken and his esteemed colleagues, Hal Burrows and Ken Blanchard, showed us how to keep other people’s monkeys off our backs. Now, we need to learn how to keep our own monkeys off our backs!

This article is dedicated to Monkey Farmers, those diehards who habitually rake in ideas, to-do’s, must-do’s, and other tasks that absolutely must be completed today! A Monkey Farmer is a true monkey lover — someone whose to-do list is not about meeting other people’s priorities. Instead, it’s about one’s own habitually unrealistic attempts to do more than any twenty-four period will allow and the subsequent anxiety related to it.

Stop, or it will cost you dearly. Is anything on The List really worth hyperventilation? Chances are slim that the answer is yes. So, before you even look at The List for the day, adjust your attitude. Get a grip; calm down. Take a lonnng deep breath. Before you know it, you will be able to tame your monkey loving tendencies — (ahem!) and then write a story about it. Here’s what you do:

  1. Define your Big Picture.
  2. Know your Payoff.
  3. Simplify your Role.
  4. Negotiate your Tradeoff.

Notice that each step requires the same thing. What is it?

  1. Define Your Big Picture
    The first step to taming your monkey is to recall why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is your Big Picture? If you have already formed your Big Picture, take a few minutes to review it. This awareness alone will help you at least stay on the fringes of a realistic perspective as you approach The List.

If you have not already developed your Big Picture or need to fine-tune it, this exercise might help: Ask yourself: “What must I do in order to feel great about how I manage this area of my life?”

Health — Physical and emotional well being
Career/Work — Livelihood
Self Image & Presentation — Personal care, professional style
Spirituality — Relationship with higher power
Home — Place to relax, recharge, energize, play, sleep
Relationships — People who really matter to me
Family / Spouse, significant other, children, relatives
Fun & Adventure — Playtime, hobbies, travel
Wealth — Financial resources
Social Responsibility — Contribution to people and causes

When you have answered the question for all the areas above, you will have a better idea about the Big Picture you’re striving to create in your life. The idea is to give yourself a reference point, or Filter, for decision making concerning your monkeys.

  1. Know Your Payoff
    With your Big Picture in view, look at The List and put every item on it through your Big Picture Filter. Starting with the first monkey on The List, decide if this thing is worth doing in the first place. If it is or will be important to at least one of the areas in your Big Picture, your payoff for doing it will be pretty good, good, or great! Putting your energy into doing it will return something valuable to you or to an outcome you want in the Big Picture. But, if something on The List does not create at least a pretty good payoff in your Big Picture categories, do not waste your time doing it. Cross it off the list! Quickly!! Lose that monkey and move on.
    On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being very important, decide what the payoff is for every item on The List. If your payoff is pretty good or better than that, your next decision would be when to do it: now or later. If you choose to do it later, then schedule the time NOW for you to do it later. The monkey just turned into an appointment.Simply put, The List is really a bunch of appointments to keep with yourself. Perhaps, at last, you will really scrutinize what goes on it! Your goal is to make sure that the pay-off you get by doing a task is tangibly related to your Big Picture.
  2. Simplify Your Role
    Once an item actually survives the Big Picture Filter, consider how you might be able to simplify your role as it relates to completing that item on The List. For example, for monthly transmissions to your accountant, you can streamline this routine process so that it becomes simpler to do. It might mean making an extra copy of an invoice when it is first produced and putting it in an envelope already addressed to the accountant — which would mean spending a few minutes printing enough address labels to last for the year so that the process of mailing is finger-snap easy.
    Be alert to making your weekly or monthly routines more difficult than they need to be. Look for opportunities to simplify your work; you might discover new ways to get it done faster and to keep your role as simple as possible.
  3. Negotiate Your Tradeoff
    Sometimes no matter how dreadful a task may be, it still might rank high in your Big Picture. It might take more time than you want to give it, or you cannot figure out how to simplify your role. At moments like those, you absolutely must recognize that sometimes it is impossible to balance what you really want to do (or avoid) with what you actually can (or can’t) do. Balance may be so impossible to achieve you might as well acknowledge that a trade-off is required. For example, if starting a business is high on a person’s list, she may trade it for relationships or her own health. The problem for some people is that they’ve made tradeoffs-by-default — that is, they didn’t intend to trade one thing for the other. They just kept doing things they wanted to do while avoiding making deliberate decisions around the same issue until the trade-off resulted from a chain of events. Don’t let this happen to you. First, decide what you want for yourself. Then, decide how you will do what you can to make it happen without sacrificing other things in your Big Picture.
    In the best of worlds, life will throw us monkeys out of the blue. When faced with a conflict regarding monkeys on The List consider the tradeoff required to take one course of action over another. This pause between thought and action might be exactly what’s needed to focus on the Big Picture.

Earlier I asked what each of the four steps listed above have in common with the others. Answer: Each step requires you to ask the right questions when you consider adding a task to your list.

1. Define your Big Picture. What is my Big Picture? Where does this task fit into it?

2. Know your payoff. Considering the fit, is this task very important, mediocre important, or not that important? What value does it give me?

3. Simplify your role. If I do this, how can I simplify it? How can it take less of my time and energy?

4. Negotiate your tradeoff. What must I give up now to get the outcome I want later?

The message is simple: Do not treat monkeys lightly. Although your ambition might sometimes exceed practical reality, you can always stop and start over again. Stop, take a deep breath. Start over. Now go and manage that list.


© Emily Barnes 2004