As owners and managers of businesses, we need to get stuff done. The inbox continues to fill up and the pile of things that we need to get around to keeps on growing. To that end, most of us would agree that someone who gets things done is seen as someone who is a hard worker or high performing individual.

As I have moved through life, I have noticed that being busy is not necessarily the same as being effective. It is not just the quantity of work that matters, it is the quality of the work and, in a sense, the return you see for the time you have invested in achieving the result.

To ensure we remain focused on achieving the right result and not just as being active, we must understand the value of our most precious resource; time. Time is our most limiting resource, we cannot reclaim lost time, we cannot create new time and we cannot borrow time from each other. It makes sense therefore that getting the most important things done in those precious hours and minutes we have been given is the key to real productivity.

So, the question is how do we maximise our effectiveness each day and how do we make sure that, with everything else that is going on, we remain focused on these most important things?

The first thing we must do is identify those critical contributions we need to make. This does not necessarily mean selecting the things we enjoy doing the most or the things that make us look good to others. It means being self-critical, reflective and honest with ourselves about what is important.

In making this selection, the path is often muddled by the sheer number of things on our ‘to do list’. Distractions can lead us down rabbit holes and away from what really matters. We can also be derailed by reworking something that has already been done, and going over old ground to fine tune or perfect something that is already good enough.

Hence, one exercise we can all do to help our effectiveness is to create a ‘stop doing list’ and a ‘done list’ to go along with our ‘to do list’.

With these three lists in mind, we need to start by defining the categories in order to segment our tasks, goals and projects in a meaningful and helpful way.

We have discussed in previous articles the notion of using the important/urgent matrix to make sure we are spending our time in the right areas and this idea dovetails nicely with that matrix.

The To do list

Your ‘to do list’ should only include tasks that are either important or urgent and important. This means applying strict criteria to the tasks you could put into this list. Think about this right now. What things, that should be on your to do list have you been procrastinating about? This might be a large task, one where you don’t know where to start or that you know is going to take a long time. Often, this is the one that you promise yourself you will tackle as soon as you have cleared the decks of more trivial tasks.

The Stop doing list

What are you currently working on that you know is less important than some of the things on your to do list? Creating a ‘stop doing list’ is one of the most effective ways we can narrow our focus and zone in on those few things that will move our performance forward.

Things that end up on your ‘stop doing list’ may still need to be done, but by someone else. Sometimes, other people will be better suited to doing a particular task, but we find ourselves doing things just because we always have. The trap here is that you may think it is quicker to do it yourself than to train someone else to do it. However, that is a short-sighted view and until you make the change, you will never move this task from your portfolio.

The Done list

Full openness is required here. Your ‘done list’ will likely contain things that have already been completed to a high enough standard, but you just keep tinkering. It is a bit like the painter knowing when to put the brushes down because the portrait is complete, but the urge to add one more brush stroke is too much, and the likeness of the subject suddenly vanishes.

Our success and the success of our businesses will come from doing the things that matter most, not from doing lots of different things that make us feel good so we can feel indispensable. Firstly, no one is indispensable, including you. Secondly, if you were to become indispensable, it would be because of the results you have helped create, rather than just because you are always busy.

To help set yourself apart from the crowd, crystallise your most important tasks and remove those things that you either don’t need to do or that you have already done. Create a ‘stop doing list’ and a ‘done’ list to help you stay more focused.