3 Battle-Tested Techniques for Smashing Your Must-Do and Nice-To-Do Lists

3 Battle-Tested Techniques for Smashing Your Must-Do and Nice-To-Do Lists

The best laid plans are all well and good, but if you can't deliver and actually do the work, then you're going to fall short of your full potential. In this article, we take a page out of books by military commanders, entrepreneurs, and championship-winning coaches to help you connect the dots between intentions and action. 

1) Prioritize and Execute

Getting things done in a home office is one thing, but few can imagine the pressure that battle puts on people, teams, and systems. That’s why when it comes to getting things done while under pressure (be that bullets flying or just your boss’s ambitious project deadlines), we can all learn a lot from Jocko Willink and his trusted colleague, Leif Babin. These former Navy SEAL commanders have baked years of experience leading our most fearsome fighting forces into war, and also pioneered innovative approaches for basic and advanced training that sets SEALS up for success and longevity.

Through their company, Echelon Front, Willink, Babin, and their fellow instructors hold in-person musters (aka gatherings) and offer online training programs and groups for leaders at all levels via the Extreme Ownership Academy (yes, civilians can join enlisted and retired members of the military). For the uninitiated, the best place to begin with their unique and potent philosophy on productivity and efficiency is their books, and particularly Extreme Ownership.

In it, the co-authors explain their pragmatic philosophy as follows: “Even the greatest of battlefield leaders could not handle an array of challenges simultaneously without being overwhelmed. That risked failing at them all. I had to remain calm, step back from my immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team. Then, rapidly direct the team to attack the priority. Once the wheels were in motion and the full resources of the team were engaged in that highest priority effort, I could then determine the next priority. I could not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I had to relax, look around, and make a call. That was what Prioritize and Execute was all about.”

So if you want to stop feeling crushed and burned out and start making calmer, more rational choices that benefit you and your colleagues, learn to do likewise.

2) Divide Priority Items into Distinct Must-Do and Nice-To-Do Lists

Once you’ve prioritized, it’s time to take an extra step before you execute. Say you have five top priorities for the upcoming work week. They’re all vying for your attention, but only a few are must-do items, while the rest are nice-to-do things that could be completed if you have the time after finishing your must-do tasks. The first could be tied to milestone and deadline dates, pertain to big, global projects or smaller, more granular ones, or seem insignificant to your colleagues but vital to your own goals. Maybe they relate to team aims rather than personal ones. Regardless of what makes a must-do for you, create two distinct lists.

Once you’ve advanced the prioritize and execute principle in this manner, start mapping your must-do and nice-to-do items against your physical planner and online calendar. Like with the “big rocks” of wellbeing – e.g., nutrition, sleep, movement, and hydration – place the must-do tasks first. And, if you’re anything like me, give yourself a bit longer than you think you’d need to finish. Also, don’t stack too many must-do projects in one day or you will end up feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally trashed. Shoot for no more than one or maximum two must-do tasks per day, balance them with a few nice-to-do items, and be sure to build in breaks too. Now you have a proven recipe for peak productivity that will leave you feeling calmer, less hurried, and more focused on what Greg McKeown calls Essentialism (aka doing less things better).  

3) Play Calendar Tetris Each Evening

To reprioritize and then plan for executing your new or updated must-do list tomorrow, make sure you take five to 10 minutes at the end of your workday to assess what you completed, what you started, what you progressed, and what you didn’t do on your current list. Once you’ve got this down, rewrite your must-do and nice-to-do lists, and then rearrange the rest of the week’s calendar blocks accordingly.

It can seem stressful initially when starting this practice. You might end up feeling frustrated, mad with yourself or other people for derailing your must-do items, or even guilty for not getting more done. But if you can give yourself a little grace, you’ll soon learn to become a ninja-level re-organizer who recognizes that life often throws you curveballs outside of your control and these have a habit of wrecking – or at least delaying – the best-laid plans. Moving calendar blocks around every evening will enable you to take such things into account, respond calmly and logically, and keep yourself and those you lead on track.

You can also create physical must-do and nice-to-do list. This will give you the satisfaction of crossing off tasks and subtasks as you knock them down like bowling pins. There’s also some evidence to suggest that the combination of list-making/updating and calendar or time blocking helps you relax at night and eliminate an obstacle from restful, premium sleep. So make sure you build this vital step into your evening routine during the week, and also set aside a few minutes each Sunday night so you can put your mind at ease and win Monday morning. The best way to crush your must-do items and get more nice-to-do ones done than you intended is to start the week strong. Now you know how to do it.