5 Tips for Entrepreneurs on maintaining your focus: checklists rock Mike | May 17th, 2011

As entrepreneurs and founders of businesses we have a great many balls in the air at any given time. The average day finds many of us actively managing a team, communicating with investors, raising funding, performing HR chores, recruiting, keeping the books, executing marketing plans, performing customer service, and taking out the trash. To accomplish all of this, we struggle mightily to stay efficient and to increase our own productivity, all the while struggling to find the personal capacity to do it all and to do it all well.

Keeping focus is the critical component in our days and our ability to do so can impact not just on how much work we can get done on a given day, but can also seriously effect the ultimate success or failure of our business.

One of the ways that I have learned to manage my own capacity, and maintain my own focus in the face of mighty of all manner of interruption, disturbance, interference, and hindrance is with a simple tool: the checklist. It is as low tech as low-tech gets: a piece of paper (in my case a Moleskin notebook) and a pen is all it takes to manage your own time, improve your efficiency, and increase your capacity. Here are 5 thoughts on why a checklist works and some tips for their use.

1. Efficiency has an ebb and a flow.
Face it: some days you are just better than others. We all have days when we are rocketing along, firing all cylinders and hitting one home run after the next. These are the great days when we can accomplish just about any task we have set for ourselves and these are the days that matter. Of course there will be the less-than-great days and these are the ones that require you to focus all the harder to maintain your productivity. On bad days I am even more dependent on the simple unadorned checklist I use to keep me focused, force me to be task-oriented, and drive me through in spite of that low-tide of efficiency.

2. Distractions abound.
Business (and life in general) is full of distractions, great and small and the humble checklist helps me to keep my priorities well ordered. Email, for instance, is one of the greatest enemies of productivity; plenty of studies have shown that reading and answering your emails in the course of the day can make it very difficult to shift focus back to other tasks. I find myself looking to the checklist after a round of emailing to help me get my mind back onto the other tasks that I have set for myself that day.

3. (Lack of) memory is the enemy.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes just plain forget things. That call I need to make; the email I need to send, or the checks I need to sign. Put them down on your list as they occur to you – a good trick is to maintain a separate list of little stuff; chores such as phone calls, emails, and simple undertakings. Your “big” list is composed of higher level activities and should include just 2-3 items per day; these are things that require deeper thinking, such as strategic planning, analysis, and writing and may often require hours of your time, as opposed to the little chores which will take you mere minutes.

4. Know your peak productivity.
Let your checklist help you in your time of need. For me I am talking about the late afternoon hours, when I know my energy and focus are at a low point. We all have those low points and the trick is to acknowledge them and embrace the predictability of their arrival. I know for instance that I am at my peak time to work is the morning, so this is when I delve into the more complex, higher level work I have on my list; the afternoon is typically reserved for the mundane duties in front of me on the “little” list.

5. There is a memoir in your future.
Finally, let your checklist be your journal. What better place to record the events of your day? What more appropriate place to look back on the notes from a call, or check the date of an event? One reason I use a notebook for my checklists is that I date them as I go and can easily reference the older lists and notes to remind myself of the details of that day, to look up a forgotten name, or to find an important phone number. And if a literary agent should ever come sniffing around, trying to convince me to publish those memoirs, I will know just where to start!

How about you? Do you use lists in the same way I do? Do you have other tricks that work for you to help maintain your focus or improve your productivity?

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  • I recommend planning and logging your days on Google Calendar.
    It’s a great way to stay focused, understand where and when you procrastinated, estimate task times better, and see what you’ve accomplished over the weeks. It’s so easy: drag and drop to create and update events (give descriptive titles).
    You have to be honest with yourself. Record where you procrastinated or leave that time blank. You can also keep separate calendars for work & personal so you can see how much time you’ve actually put into these separate activities.
    You may also want to try time tracking tools like http://rescuetime.com but in my opinion you are a better judge at when you were productive than automated software. It’s more of a general reference- they provide a productivity index #

  •  Checklists might be good for some people, but I can’t use them. I’ve tried numerous times, but every time I did, the same thing happened. I would add items to the checklist,  start going through them, but before I am even done with the first few, I would start adding more and more items to the list, since I wanted to do all of them. Unfortunately, there was only so much time and I would try to prioritize by divide the list into the 4 quads, trying to focus on “important and urgent”. The problem was, overtime more and more tasks would make their way into this category and eventually overflow. To solve the problem, I decided to do away with a list, and instead to keep it in my head. The theory is – if it’s important and urgent, I will remember and get it done today and now, and if not, it isn’t worth doing anyway. These are my two cents, and if this helps you, check out my blog (http://GeekAtSea.com) and let me know. Cheers!

  • I use a ‘checklist’ in a slightly different way. For me they’re a way of automating a mundane sequence of events or learning a new skill/task until it sinks into the grey-matter and becomes semi-automated. Examples – packing list for a long weekend, a process list for creating a flowchart in omnigraffle or just a list of what to take to golf early on a saturday morning! 

    I use action lists for the things I need to do and process during daily productivity and park them within certain projects and contexts. I use lo-tech and hi-tech devices to capture all this info and review it all regularly to make sure I’m on top of it all!

  • Anonymous

    @mark_daniels: Thanks for the note! This is an interesting approach to have two lists with completely different functional purposes. I like.

  • Anonymous

    @Kirill Zubovsky: Thanks for the feedback and for reading. Many people are like you and checklists just don’t work. One solution may be to have a list for “action items” for the day, and another, longer, list of long-term items for you to refer to. One secret is to keep the number of daily to-do’s down to a reasonable number and focus just on those.

  • Anonymous

    @Colin Winter: Thanks for the thoughts! all of these tools are excellent, and I am a big believer in calendars (I use iCal which I synch to several shared Google calendars using Spanning Sync), but for me nothing replaces the sheer analog simplicity of a notebook with a pen…

  • Right, exactly. My solution to “action items” list is to keep it all in my head, and the long-term to-do list is basically a ton of post-it notes hanging all around the apartment =) Thanks for the feedback!

  • Amy

    Everytime I try to computerize my to do’s and calendar I always end up going back to pen & paper!  There is something about it…I don’t feel It’s fully been committed to a list if I have typed it in. And often, writing things down helps me remember.

  • If you want a check list that is collaborative then check out Vuuch.  Each list is on it’s own web page and you can structure your lists.  You can invite people to activities or to a page.  Activities can be up dated from many places, even email.  There is an Outlook add-in and you can even keep lists associated to MS documents (create a collaborative list for a PPT or Word document).  And activities can be classified and related to multiple pages.

    Each page (list) also has a classification.  You can create as many custom page types as you want.

    With Vuuch the list is shared with as many poeple as needed.

    http://www.vuuch.com http://doc.vuuch.com

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