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Orienting (Your To-Do List and Your Life) Around Impact

photo by rebecca siegel, via flickr creative commons

photo by rebecca siegel, via flickr creative commons

I have extraordinarily clear memories of the first few months in my first job out of college.  Lots of things stick out; to name a few: eating oatmeal and drinking a cup of watery Keurig coffee every single morning because it was free at the office…my first-ever office holiday party (James Bond themed with casino tables and everything)…recording my voicemail message like 15 times until I thought it sounded even remotely professional.

But one of things I remember most was my dysfunctional relationship with my to-do list.  I was terrified to leave work without checking everything off.  I can picture the list now…three things left on it…staring at me at 6pm when all I wanted to do was go to boxing class.  Inevitably, I’d either stay to finish them or show up super early the next morning to have them done before the day started.  The feeling of being productive didn’t outweigh the constant nagging that I wasn’t getting to do the things outside of work that I wanted to do.

At some point, however, I realized that I didn’t need to finish everything on the list every day.  It was OK to start the day with a dirty slate; the real challenge was in choosing the right things to knock off the list every day.  Thank goodness I (sort of) figured out what I could leave unfinished versus what I couldn’t before life became complicated (and beautified) by hobbies and new friends and a husband and children.  Figuring this out is an art, not a science; and I’ve played around with a few different ways to manage my to-do list: doing the hardest things first thing, doing the things I love before everything else, organizing by deadline, and organizing by impact.  My most recent lens has been impact.  I think it’s something people should talk more about, and I wish it’s something I would have thought about earlier in life.


Why impact?  Here are five reasons:

  1. Impact requires us to think about the broader context in which we’re living/working.  It requires some level of connection to the people, places and things around us.  It forces us to think beyond what makes us happy and dig into what gives us meaning.
  2. Impact doesn’t need to be tied to hours.  Sometimes it is, but it’s possible to make a huge impact in a very short amount of time.  I’d love to see more companies orient around impact versus time.
  3. Impact makes trade-offs easier.  It’s easier to give something up in service of getting something done if you have a good understanding of the scope of the outcome.
  4. Impact gets noticed.  Yes, it’s critical to praise the process (especially with kids), but at the end of the day, people impact does matter.
  5. Impact feels good.  It’s bigger than just you.  It can change a mindset.  It can change a life.  It can even change the world.

So how does this work?  Well, here’s how it works for me:

  • I’m clear about the things I want to impact in my life.  For me, some of these include my family’s happiness, my children’s sense of self, people’s overall well-being, the way organizations support personal growth and work/life integration, what the future of work might look like.
  • Every week, I think about what I’m going to focus on most.  I then ask myself why each of those areas/items matters, and based on those responses, I prioritize my list and my time.
  • I then think about what I need to do to make those things happen (i.e., Do I need workouts to give me energy?  Do I have little mundane tasks that are distracting me enough that I should knock them off too?), and i add those to the list.
  • I make a list of “must do” items and keep my list of “would be great to get these things done” items.  I try hard to not touch the second list until I finish what’s on the first.

Orienting around impact isn’t easy.  It’s muddy and imperfect, and it can sometimes create meaning/fulfillment but not necessarily in-the-moment happiness.  But it’s one of the many tools we have in our toolkit as we move through life.  And it’s one that is helping me navigate the trade-offs I make every day and every week.

What works best for you?  How do you organize the things you need to get done (and are lucky enough to have any choice about) every day?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. ebriceno #

    Thanks Brynn. Cool lens through which to prioritize to-do’s. I’ll consider impact when prioritizing, thanks! In terms of “How do you organize the things you need to get done”, I use Asana (, an AWESOME (and free) tool both for self-mgmt and for team collaboration, in case you haven’t checked it out. I find tags in Asana to be very useful – e.g. you could have a “must do” and a “would be great” tag. (I use lots of tags, including “10 Must be done”, “11 High”, “12 Med-High”… “15 Someday Maybe”, “WHEN: car”, “WHEN: mindless”… not all tasks have tags but only when useful. Anyway, Asana is awesome to keep track of to do’s and separate what’s important vs. not for people who live on devices/digital (vs paper).

    March 19, 2013
  2. You have literally been reading my mind. I’m trying every day to work on one “task” that WILL have an impact – even if it’s a small one – and not think of all the other stuff that inevitably won’t get done b/c it can’t. (I didn’t have this problem as much pre-baby b/c I could stay up late working to finish the to do’s – but now, with a kid, I have to go to bed early or my mind turns into baby oatmeal). Thanks for the reminder and reinforcement! xox

    March 19, 2013

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