Manage time with Big List/Small List

Big sheet of paper behind small sheet of paper. Title Text: Big List/Small List, Dr. Tim Grivois. Background is a To Do List with a hand holding a pen checking off items in red checkmarks.

by Dr. Tim Grivois, Executive Director

Because time management is a crucial leadership skill, I read every productivity self-help book I can find. While each one has a unique perspective, I’ve noticed that all productivity systems amount to making two vital yet distinct types of lists: your Big List and your Small List.

Your Big List is every piece of work that belongs to you. For most people, their Big List is what I mean when I say “open-ended lists of tasks.” Because running a school involves managing more information than any human being can reliably store, having one place to record everything ensures nothing gets lost.

Big Lists are, well, big. For this reason, digital tools such as Google Tasks, Todoist, Asana, and Trello are often the best for Big Lists. I’ve used them all, and currently manage my work through Todoist. However, the best Big List tool is the one you’ll actually use. Try the free tools you probably can access through work, and email me if you’d like to know more about the others. If you prefer a physical Big List, consider a Bullet Journal or any large notebook.

I schedule time to manage my Big List in the morning and evening. Every time an email or something in my physical inbox requires my action, I record what I need to do in Todoist. Of course, if I can just do it now in five minutes or less, I just do it.

However, what makes your Big List useful (everything is on it) also makes it an obstacle to effective time management. Because your Big List will always be too big to complete in a day, using your Big List exclusively leads to exceptionally busy yet highly unproductive days. Avoid this by creating a Small List of only those three to five tasks that you are sure you can complete tomorrow.

While most leaders I work with already have a Big List, the Small List is often a new strategy. Avoid this by creating a small list of three to five tasks. A bite-sized focus sets you up for success, especially for school and nonprofit leaders who can expect to manage random interruptions in their day. When you commit to three to five Small List items, you have more time for everything else. 

The best time to create my Small List is before I leave work for the day. I have “Do These Today” in the upper left corner of my whiteboard and space for no more than three to five items. Then, when I get to the office, I know exactly what I need to work on. This keeps me accountable to what I can get done, and usually leaves me with plenty of extra time to complete everything else competing for my time and attention.

Big List / Small List is essentially a way of collecting all the work and making daily decisions about what matters most. Give the strategy a try, and let me know how it’s working for you! And, as always, find a beautiful way to live your values out loud.

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