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Your to-do list doesn’t get any shorter in meetings. In fact, it probably grows. So if you spend your life in meetings, how do you get your to-do list completed?

Management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders says it’s important to banish from your mind the notion that there will be ideal, lengthy periods of time in your workweek where you can deliberately go through all – or even most of – the elements of some key project. Yes, it helps to try to carve out some protected unbroken stretches of time in your schedule for focused work. But Ms. Saunders, writing for the Harvard Business Review, says “waiting for a slice of project Nirvana keeps you from getting started when you can. A better approach is to accept and work within the reality that meetings happen.”

That means taking time to think through the many elements of work that comprise the project in front of you – essentially a checklist of all the pieces that make up the finished project. A sample she gives for a presentation has 12 chunks, including specifics such as looking at notes from the last meeting, inserting charts and double-checking citations. It makes for a longer to-do list but a more realistic one, with items that can be tackled in 15- and 30-minute chunks rather than half a day or a full day.

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“Even if you can just tick off one or two of these items at a time, you are still making progress. And when you come back to work on the presentation after some time away, you’ll know what you’ve accomplished and what’s next.”

If you can, batch similar tasks together. “Answering e-mails requires a different thinking muscle than brainstorming new revenue streams,” designer Ryder Caroll tells Fast Company. “Make it easier on your brain by grouping tasks that require similar thought processes together. Don’t try to do your creative work after spending an hour answering or filing e-mails. Task-switching takes time.” He also is a proponent of the anti-to-do list, arguing the key to getting things done is reminding yourself what is not important.

Using your to-do list properly involves having one, of course. A surprising number of people don’t, claiming they remember what they need to or that to-do lists limit their creativity. But time-management consultant Craig Jarrow says to-do lists are the simplest productivity tool to keep you on track.

But that means just one list. “Some individuals keep lists everywhere. At home. At work. On their phone. On a desk pad. On a sticky note. However, you need one list and one list only. Having too many lists results in lost tasks and forgotten lists,” he writes on his blog.

The list should be visible and with you at all times. Task-visibility, he says, leads to action. It should be easy to use. Pen and paper are excellent. If you opt for an app, make sure it doesn’t have a frustrating number of steps for adding an item. He also feels apps are not all that visible as you only see the items when you look at your phone.

“Where is your to-do list right now?” he asks. “It should be at hand and visible as much as possible. And it should be part of your daily routine and habits.”

Quick hits

  • “Move fast and break things." That’s common but horrible advice, because breaking things isn’t the point of your work, says entrepreneur Seth Godin. Instead, try “move fast and make things better,” or “move fast and create possibility,” or “move fast and learn something.”
  • Don’t be lazy when clicking forward on an e-mail. Provide a reason for sending it, says HR specialist Jenni Stone.
  • You can build trust by repeating the last few words or critical few words of what another person is saying in conversation, advises veteran FBI negotiator Chris Voss.
  • “Chick beer” and “dryer sheets for men” are part of a trend of identity-based labelling in marketing. But five recent studies suggest it can often backfire. In one experiment, when offered green or purple calculators, women were less likely to take the purple, perhaps because it stirred up the notion that women are weak at math, the researchers speculate.
  • “Who is your role model?" If asked this in an interview, don’t opt for something bland like your mother or father. Consultant Suzy Welch says to consider someone the recruiter might know, perhaps an influential former boss or thought leader in the field.

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