A To Do List at your service

It has been a long time since I had a job that has a defined amount of tasks which, in their majority, can be finished.

The early days of transition from a very structured M&A environment were somewhat smooth, as I was really creating my role and adding projects along the way. It was weird not to have a defined list of things I was supposed to do but it allowed me to really think about what I thought I should be doing. In time things added up and I played around with multiple organization systems to keep up with my to-dos at work:

  • I have tried old school pen to paper long list. The list was often long and hard to prioritize and never (never ever) got done. It was a process of re-writing the list each time I ran out of space to remove done items and carry on. Each time I started a new list I also lost all track of previous items and always felt reduced to a single sheet of paper;
  • I have tried using email as my to-do list. Things that need to be done sit on my inbox, everything else gets filled away. These days I don’t delete anything other than ‘thank you’ emails, news or research runs and promotional emails. Even though Outlook is still a reflection of my to-dos and I still keep a lean inbox, I have concluded that outlook mostly has other people’s agenda for me or inputs into certain to-dos I am working on but is insufficient to give me a full picture and prioritize. Plus, I like to strike out things – on paper.
  • I have tried outlook tasks. Given my extensive use of outlook and the fact that is always in one of my 3 screens, as a complement to resolve the above problem. I was able to use categories, flag emails if they were important to feature in my to-do list, add new tasks that were not outlook related and even send from one note, which I have become an incremental user of. Ultimately you can even PRINT your outlook task list. A key thing that made it fail for me is that the list became huge – mostly because of the people that like to add follow up flags to the emails they send, immediately creating a to do on my list. What do they know about my to-do list? And also, the completed items disappeared and I decided digital was not yet my thing, as much digital as I was!

When bullet journaling came into my life, I knew I had to use some of the concepts for my work life, even though my bullet journal does not include anything that is work-related. Not wanting to spoil the fun of a future post on bullet journal (and why I am obsessed about it), I knew I wanted a few keep concepts:

  • Start afresh on a regular basis – daily is too much for me so I settled for weekly task lists;
  • A clean system to mark tasks as completed (in addition to good old highlighter), delayed or cancelled, but knowing where to find them;
  • Easy system to add tasks from the following weeks or follow-ups from today’s tasks but not having them seat in my current to-do list;
  • Keep past and future in the same place – no post its or lose sheets, I have a single notepad for my to-dos – no content, just topics.

I knew I wanted more than a well functioning task list to get me to completion. I knew prioritization, present and future was also key, as I wanted to ensure I spent enough time in certain areas, and as little as possible in others. In a recent COO conference I attended, both Clare Woodman and Mandy de Filippo highlighted the importance of having your own agenda and priorities otherwise, people will fill you with theirs. The line of where the COO office work finishes and the business begins can be very blurred. And usually pushed around by people, especially when you try to be helpful…

So back to the to-do list.

I bucketed to dos clearly and visibly in their respective areas of work, and then I could see where I was spending more of my time over weekly periods and adjust priorities. I am still working on how to reflect there what is important/ not important, urgent/ not urgent. As much as I may like a 2 by 2 matrix I still was not able to bring that in. Thoughts welcome.

Oh, in case you did not notice, I went back to paper – a notepad more precisely. Good old pen and paper work wonders for me.

So what are my areas of focus and how can you think about yours as you get organized. Many of these should resonate with you if you are running a business, as they encompass our working areas for the COO office. I recognise 10 can sometimes look too much but it is common to have indeed many areas to grasp when in business management:

  1. Strategy – this includes strategic reviews, business planning and budgeting as well as new product reviews. When I was first creating my buckets, I knew this was an area I was not spending enough time on, and definitely an area that I favoured. I executed on it quite a bit, but less so in terms of thinking and driving new items into the agenda. So I made it number 1 – to ensure it was at the forefront of my mind;
  2. Initiatives – intrinsically related to strategy, these are the initiatives that I am closely involved in. As I defined as a goal for the year to have some more hands-on experience on driving these initiatives (rather than just regulatory ones), it was important to make space for this, which at the time I did not have. Now I include on it not only the regular initiative reviews with the businesses but also work that I try to do to push some of the initiatives forward;
  3. MI/Reporting – this may seem odd as I am not in Finance but I concluded that even though I did NOT WANT to spend an enormous amount of time on it, this was a key area for my role, and one where multiple business constituents relied on myself and the team to ensure information was good. The hours we spent on this area this year are extraordinarily high, not only in terms of data accuracy, which is key to manage a business and make the right decisions but also in terms of revamping reporting and ensuring appropriate management information for all business constituents;
  4. Innovation – this field went blank for a while, but it was another one that I knew we had to spend time on. If we wanted to bring innovation to a large organization, there had to be an effort to do so and a structure to it. In the meantime, this “box” became innovation and investments and it includes all the work that I do in meeting startups every other day to find out more about what more we can do in the Fintech space;
  5. Technology – this was another new and empty field when we first added it to the list. As Technology takes a core role in so many corporates where Technology is traditionally seen as a support service, it is increasingly important to have technology at the core of business strategy, to ensure the agendas are aligned. In the meantime, I have allocated this item to someone in my team so I expect this box will not be there for me next year;
  6. Day to Day – these are the most well-known things in a COO Office or any company. Expense management, expense approvals, making sure the day to day works while everyone is at work. Historically I have done extensive work around expense management and less so about office management, but again to find space for the strategy area, where I most like to operate, I have someone in my team who is owner for this now, and I keep an eye but do not have to spend an enormous amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, it is super important, and it merits the work put into it, but after having done it for a while I thought it was time to do less of it;
  7. People – this is an area that always makes me wonder what to do. I could fill the to-dos here in the blink of an eye. Headcount plans, people strategy, hiring strategy, millennials, talent development, analyst training, recruitment, diversity. Where do I start in all of the topics that interest me? For the last few years, I accepted I was not going to be able to spend time on this topic, and I barely did even any recruitment other than for my team. I mentor a lot of young talent in the bank and never say no to anyone asking advice, but figured I could not have proper time to commit. As I empty some “buckets” I know that I am trying to make space to do work here, which is top 3 in any company, especially in a people like business.
  8. Chief of Staff – now this can be an odd one to figure out, but as I have worked for over 7 years for heads of business, I have taken a lot of chief of staff related work. What is this you may wonder? Well, it includes preparation for external meetings, board meetings, committees organization. Anything ranging from content and agenda definition, to just ensuring meetings happen and go well, or speech writing and presentations preparation;
  9. Regulatory – yes, this deserved its own box for the majority of the year, as sad as may be for some. As I try to merge it with Chief of Staff “box” I recognise it is unlikely to hold like that. I do devote some of the time to preparing regulatory meetings but there are always other projects that are regulator related and that I still manage in the team. With banks being such heavily regulated entities, regulatory tasks are part of any manager’s day to day job;
  10. Cross-Collaboration – this is where my current “F” is, given how little I have been able to work on this. Which is driving collaboration across businesses. Perhaps by putting it in number 10, I did myself a disservice? Still to be seen. But connecting departments and functional areas should be in the top 10 in most corporations or medium-size companies. It comes more naturally in smaller places, though it can quickly fade away if the right systems are not in place.

So these are my 10 boxes, and each week I draw on a double-sided sheet of my notepad, 6 boxes in the front, 6 boxes in the back, and each holds the tasks related to each of these areas. Well, Sara, 6 and 6 does not add up to 10. True fact. I have 2 more boxes:

  • Team Management: preparation of team meetings, training sessions, evaluations, approvals, concerns related to my team managers. I have always been keen to be a manager and I take seriously the management of the 4 people that work for me, one of them in India. I want to ensure there is always a place in my list for matters related to them, so there is no procrastination;
  • Other: I know, this box is great. In general, it may not have much or it may have things that I need to do at work, such as compliance training or something related. But I think any structured to do list should allow space for flexibility, and this is it. But alert, if you have too much on your other box, you should probably think of categorizing that as well!

Sara, do you spend more time working on your to-do list than working? Not at all, though it may look like it.

Here are a few tricks on how to manage it:

  1. I always have it open – I can easily cross things out or add things to it if I get asked to do something or realize a follow up after a meeting when I come back to my desk;
  2. I check it before leaving the office for 5 minutes – I cross out anything that I may have done, quickly note things that came up during the day and I have not yet addressed, and I may even do a quick email clean up while putting things on the list if I have time. This is one of the secrets of successful people (or so I heard), which is to organize the next day before you wrap up for the day;
  3. I check it first thing in the morning – I start by looking for quick wins (but I rarely have any) and more often than not I have marked a priority one in some shape or form the night before. If not a priority marked and I have a block of time, I typically will choose the urgent over the not urgent and not always the important, but I am working on it. If I did check the list the night before I may have even already put on my calendar which tasks I want to start with;
  4. I always have more than 1 week open – this means I typically have 2 or 3 pages prepared with my 12 boxes at any given time. This means that if I complete something that will require a follow up I will immediately add that to the next week, or if I get asked to do something that is not urgent and can be dealt with the following week, I will put it directly there, and never in my current list. It is great to keep the current list honest and focused, rather than overwhelming and meaningless;
  5. I close the week before leaving on Friday – I am not at 100% completion but I am close to it. It is key to finish the week with a clear idea on where we are and how we are going to start the week after. I find this key to truly enjoying the weekend (or worst case do anything that I feel really can not wait to set me up to the week). How do I close the week? Any tasks that are not completed are evaluated, assuming they are not urgent and can still be squeezed on a late Friday night – are they still a priority and need to be addressed immediately the following week? Are they important but not a priority and are probably better suited in 2 weeks time, if my following week is already super busy? Are they actually not going to happen no matter how many times I put them on my list as they are not that important? That determines what I do with each of the tasks and gives me an immediate outlook of how busy the week ahead is. Also, if there are items that I really should have already done, I do use Fridays to extend my day later and get a lot out of the way. Not socially great but I still do always make it out to dinner. And feeling much more in control.

That is what to do lists are made for. They are there to give you control, not to control you. And this is how I control mine.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash


  1. Some agenda you create, some agenda happens to you. Carefully managing both, including work life balance, will be your strength. Well done!
    PS: I used spreadsheets, but now I am retired 😉

  2. hey @Sara,
    I realized that everyone does their “Today must do’s”, but no one does their “Today’s must not’s”
    Do you have thoughts on that?

    1. I think today’s article gives you a bit of sense on that. It allows for you to only put on today’s list what needs to go in today and still have a place for what needs to be one in the future without clogging up today – the Future Log.

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