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Organizing Your Options for To-Do Lists

Transform a disorganized to-do list into one that’s easy to manage.

As a fitness professional with a busy schedule, you know that crossing important tasks off your to-do list every day is a major step toward greater personal and work satisfaction. However, it’s challenging when your to-do items are scribbled on bits of paper strewn across your desk and stuffed into your appointment book or when your list just keeps getting longer and more unruly.

Know that you can create a to-do system that eliminates stress rather than causing more of it. An effective system can assist you in managing tasks in the short term and the long term. The more proficient you are at completing duties, the more you can accomplish. Most important, greater efficiency means more freedom for nonwork activities, such as taking days off and spending quality time with family and friends. And the more you recharge your batteries in this way, the more productive you’ll be at work, too.

Explore the following options to revamp a messy or ever-expanding to-do list into one that’s simple to maintain.

Creating an Effective To-Do List

Use these strategies to create a list that works for you:

How To Start. A to-do list on its own does little to make you more efficient, according to Michael Fritsch, a workplace operations expert and chief executive officer at Prometheus Performance Systems in Austin, Texas. “[It] must be rooted in effective time management and linked to your personal vision and purpose,” he says. In other words, know what you want and be clear about where you’re headed. “Most of your list should focus on that plan of action and bring you closer to achieving your goal. This is equally true for both business goals and personal goals,” he says.

Another key element is breaking down exactly how you will get from point A to point B. “You must set actual steps and deadlines,” says Nicki Anderson, president of Reality Fitness Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, and a presenter on time management. “If you don’t have specific steps, you will feel overwhelmed, and everything will end up getting done at the last minute or, in some instances, not at all.”

Susan Cantwell, president of Lifestyle Coaching Institute, author of Policies That Work for Personal Trainers (IDEA 1997) and a busy mom of four kids in Fredericton, New Brunswick, agrees. She says that writing something like “Revamp brochure” on a to-do list isn’t as effective as also including a timeline of manageable steps leading up to the task’s completion.

What to Do First. Tackle your top priorities and most demanding items first. Prioritizing tasks according to their importance motivates you to deal with high-value jobs in a timely manner. It also allows you to identify outdated or irrelevant duties that you can purge. “If your list is divided by importance, you can let those things go that are not propelling your business forward, and focus on the things that are,” says Anderson. (See “ABCD System” for practical strategies on list prioritization.)

When to Do It. Cantwell points out that when you attend to your list is as important as what’s on it, especially if you’re busy with clients throughout the day. “Fitness professionals should schedule time during their workday rather than allocate their own free time [for to-do tasks],” says Cantwell. At the end of a long day, the last thing you might want to do is focus on what else needs to be done.

That’s why Patrick Snow, career coach and author of Creating Your Own Destiny (Aviva Publishing 2001), suggests that you tackle your to-do list first thing. “Wake up early and try to get as many [as possible] of your to-dos completed prior to noon,” he says. Of course, the best time of day to deal with your list is when you feel most energetic and focused.

Options for Tackling To-Dos

The kind of to-do system you choose should depend on how comfortable you feel using technology, where you spend most of your time and how many tasks you juggle in a day.

High-Tech Approach. If you’re technologically savvy, you could try an entirely electronic system. With computer-based reminders, you can associate to-dos with important contacts, such as specific clients or a spouse, notes Fritsch. “Most programs allow you to synchronize with a smart phone or PDA so that you have your to-do list always at your fingertips. Typically, you can mark an item completed on your phone and then update the status on your computer the next time you synch,” he says.

Multiple-Tools Method. If you split your time between sitting at a desk and milling around the gym or commuting to clients’ homes, you might use more than one tool. Peggy Duncan, Atlanta-based personal productivity expert and author of Put Time Management to Work and Live the Life You Want (PSC Press 2004), recommends a combination of systems, depending on where you are. For example, you could use computer reminders, folders and checklists at your desk; your cell phone’s reminder feature while driving; and a small notepad you can slip in your bag or pocket for errands around town.

Using multiple tools allows you to move from place to place without worrying about bringing one master list everywhere. However, Fritsch stresses that simpler is often better. “If your to-do list is overly complicated, you probably won’t use it,” he says. Make sure that your focus is on managing your list, not your reminder tools.

ABCD System. An electronic or handwritten system that clearly identifies tasks according to their importance is another option. With this method, you rank items in categories, such as A-B-C-D or 1-2-3-4. Each category signifies levels of priority and urgency. For example:

  • A = important; urgent
  • B = important; not urgent
  • C = not important; urgent
  • D = not important; not urgent

Mediating a serious staff conflict and preparing a program for a client whom you will see that afternoon are important and urgent tasks (category A). Although responding to a humorous e-mail from a friend may be less stressful and more fun, it’s neither important nor urgent (category D).

The idea is to complete all A tasks before moving on to B items and so on. You can also prioritize tasks within each classification by placing the most important ones first on the list. You might decide to organize your lists by writing each category on a separate sheet of paper in a notebook or by stapling lists together. Once you have completed all tasks in one category, you focus on the next one.

A similar method involves arranging priorities in four quadrants, like the ones shown in “Four-Quadrant Approach” below. Again, your goal is to eliminate all items in quadrant A before tackling quadrant B. You could incorporate all to-dos into one main system or create separate lists for work, family and household responsibilities. Just be sure to distinguish between the mundane daily items and those tasks that are essential for reaching your important goals, says Fritsch.

Crossing Chaos Off Your List

Regardless of the to-do method you use, remember that a focused and clutter-free system equals a more focused and clutter-free existence. And, as Cantwell points out, when you can genuinely model the balanced life that you’re helping your clients achieve, everyone wins.


Check out these books to learn more helpful time management tips:

Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (15th anniversary ed.). Free Press.

Tracy, Brian. 2001. Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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