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Online To-Do List Tools

While good ole' paper and pen will create effective To-Do lists, there are more technological options available all the time. With all of these fantastic tools available, you might want to check out some of these options for turbo-charging your daily To-Dos:

1.    Remember the Milk (rememberthemilk.com).
With interfaces with Google Calendar and apps for Twitter, the iPhone and the Android, Remember the Milk is like a To-Do list on steroids. You can set up reminder messages to be sent to you via IM or email, you can share your tasks with others, and set priorities. Service is free.
 
2.    Basecamp (basecamphq.com).
Basecamp is on the list of many entrepreneurs' must-have tools. The online service provides task and project tracking, messaging, and file storage for multiple users. Basecamp may be more than you need for a daily to-do list, but check out the free trial. You may fall in love with its capabilities for tracking multiple lists across multiple projects and users. The basic service is $24 per month, with larger, more robust plans going up to $149/month.
 
3.    Ta-Da Lists (tadalist.com).
If you just want basic list capability without a lot of bells and whistles, Ta-Da Lists is for you. You can create multiple lists, share them with others, and download them to your iPhone. Service is free.
 
4.    Rough Underbelly (roughunderbelly.com).
This To-Do list service has a unique way of tracking priorities. You assign a certain number of points to each task, and your daily score is tallied and tracked over time. There's also a timer function. No collaboration or sharing. Service is free.
 
5.    Toodledo (toodledo.com).
Want to assign priorities, tags, and deadlines, set goals, create folders, and collaborate with others? Toodledo may be just the answer for you. A robust list function where you can store all your lists and notes together. Service is free.
 
6.    Mindomo (mindomo.com).
If you prefer to create mindmaps before assigning tasks to lists, check out Mindomo. You can create maps, embed notes, and work online and off. The basic version includes 7 maps and is free; upgrades are available for $6/month for an individual and $9/month for a team.
 
There are literally dozens of tools available to help you track your projects and activities. Don't get blinded by the glitz of the technology, though – the best tool is always the one that is easy to use and available when you need it.
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Mindmapping Your To-Do List

We are trained early on to think that lists must be linear – one item after another, with cute little check boxes next to each. But what if your brain isn't the linear type? Many people, especially creatives, have trouble thinking in a linear fashion. Forcing themselves to create To-Do lists in a traditional manner makes them feel stifled and bored, precisely the wrong mindset in which to do your best thinking. 

Fortunately, you're not graded on your To-Do list. There is no one “right” way. In fact, some of the most productive people don't use traditional To-Do lists at all. They use mindmaps. Mindmapping is a visual way to get information out of your brain and onto a page, which also can create fully functional action “lists.” 
 
The basics for mindmapping are simple. There are computer programs that can assist you (google “mindmap software” for suggestions) and many people prefer those, but really all you need is a large sheet of blank paper and a pen. 
 
Start with a main idea in the center of the page, and brainstorm all the possible related topics around the edges of the page, with lines connecting each thought to the center. Chains of thoughts will link one idea to the next, and indicate patterns and possible links. The idea is that you're not forcing your thoughts into a pre-set format; you're allowing yourself to get all the information out of your brain before trying to group and organize it. 
 
Mindmaps are also useful for figuring out project timelines. Here's how it would work…
 
1.    Start with the goal in the center
(For instance, “Send new customers the latest autoresponder series.”).
2.    Ask yourself, “What would have to happen before I reached that result?”
(“I'd need to load the series into my email system”)
3.    Keep asking that same question, over and over.
(“Before that, I'd need to write the series.”).
4.    Keep going until you get to the first thing you need to do TODAY to get moving towards completion.
(“I'd need to create a new list in my email system and load the new contacts into it.”).
5.    Then add that item to today's list of activities. 
 
Where people fall down when using mindmaps is they never finish. They create the map and think they're done. But you have to actually take that information and add it to a strategy that includes tasks and deadlines. Otherwise, it's like pulling everything out of your closet and spreading it across your bedroom. Your closet is not clean and organized until you create a plan for the space and put everything according to that plan.
 
Mindmapping can be a fun and effective way to create sophisticated strategies and project plans. The key is to allow yourself free rein to get everything down on paper, and then go back and instill logical structure around those ideas. 

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Know the Difference Between Urgent and Important

Do you feel like your day is spent in “firefighter” mode – putting out one emergency blaze after another? You can easily spend eight hours or more at the beck and call of the urgent activities on your list: The phone call that come right when you're sitting down to do some much-needed strategic planning, the unexpected invitation to contribute to a blog round-up, the desperate plea for a last-minute speaker on an industry teleconference. While these all might be worthy tasks, they're not necessarily related to your high-level goals. And as a result, the time you've set aside for your important activities can be usurped by the tyranny of the urgent. 

Yes, it's hard to ignore a ringing phone or a full email inbox. But if you want to move your business to the next level quickly, you need to have a system for focusing on the important tasks instead of the urgent ones.
 
Here are five tips for keeping your attention in the right spot:
 
1.    Know what “important” is.
You have to have your high-level goals in front of you, literally and figuratively. You must know what you're trying to accomplish this month, this week, today, so you can filter your activities accordingly.
 
2.    Create zones with no distractions.
It's not practical to turn off your phone ringer for 8 hours straight, or to check your email only once a day. But you can set up zones where you limit outside interruptions. Start with a quiet time first thing in the morning for one hour. Get one big item off your To-Do list before you check email. If that works well, add another quiet zone in the afternoon, maybe right before you quit work, so you can put your planning together for the following day.
 
3.    Set expectations.
You train people how to treat you and what to expect from you. If you always respond to their emails immediately, they'll grow to expect immediate answers. Slowly wean them from expecting you to be on-call, 24/7.
 
4.    Create systems to support your new habits.
Email in-box filters that shuffle non-critical newsletters and group emails to another filter for later reading will help keep you from getting sidetracked. Removing all non-essential programs and icons from your computer desktop (and from your physical desktop, too!) can keep you focused. Figure out where you're getting derailed and create some boundaries to keep you on task.
 
5.    Remind yourself you can't do everything.
Admitting you can't read every book and newsletter, you can't keep up with every blog, you can't personally correspond with everyone on your mailing list, can go a long way to helping you see your limits. Suddenly, you realize you're only human, and if you can't do everything, you have to be strategic about where you do spend your time. 
 
It can be very uncomfortable to leave things undone, or to choose not to respond to certain invitations or requests. Remind yourself of the big picture, and hold fast to that vision. 
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Challenge Your Comfort Zone

While I'm all for comfort, there are times when a little discomfort can go a long way towards helping us achieve our goals. Think about working with a personal trainer; his or her goal is to push you outside your usual routine to help you get fit, be stronger, and become healthier. And if it works for your body, it can work for your business, too. In fact, one of the best things you can do as an entrepreneur is to constantly push yourself to do the things that make you the most uncomfortable.

If you review your list of goals – or even your daily To-Do list – the item that makes you the most nervous is likely the one that could have the biggest payoff. Contacting a big name in your industry, publishing a post that's more opinionated than your typical “safe” topics, creating a video when you're strictly a written word kind of businessperson, attending a seminar in your area, creating your first infoproduct, saying “yes” to an interview with a big name in your field – all of these are risky because they put you in the position of being rejected. But at the same time, they can have a huge impact on your business. One big action like this can take the place of hundreds of smaller, safer steps.
 
I know, I know. It's hard to put yourself out there. But there are some things you can do to make sure your risks are calculated ones:
 
1.    Calculate the downside.
Ask yourself, “What's the worst that can happen?” If you're rejected, will you lose your business? Alienate a loved one? Hurt someone? Probably not. Acknowledging the worst case scenario helps you keep the risk in perspective.
 
2.    Do your research.
Preparing yourself for the event can only help you be more successful. Do your research on the new contact you're pitching. Review your script before giving a speech. Know what you're getting into, and how you'll handle any questions or issues that will arise.
 
3.    Think positive.
Expect the best. When you contact a big-name potential partner, expect that they'll want to work with you. When you submit an article or manuscript, assume that it will be accepted. Sure, things go wrong, but don't borrow trouble. If there are problems, you'll find out soon enough.
 
4.    Figure out a back-up plan.
If your number-one JV partner turns you down, who are you going to go to next? If you can't book the hotel for your preferred date for your first live seminar, what's your second choice? Having a plan to fall back on will make you less likely to freak out if your ideal situation doesn't materialize.
 
5.    Do it again. And again. And again.
For your business to keep growing, YOU need to keep growing. And that means constantly spreading your wings farther and farther. Sometimes you'll fly and sometimes you'll flop, but if you keep working at it, over time you'll find yourself moving way beyond your old safety zone, operating at a whole new level. 
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Outsourcing and Delegating

Once you've figured out the high-value items on your To-Do list, you may be wondering how you're going to do all of those other tasks that you haven't listed as critical, but that are still important to the maintenance of your business.

Here's the short answer: You don't. Someone else does!
 
Oprah doesn't film her own show (heck, she doesn't even choose her own clothes!). Tony Hsieh doesn't answer the phones at Zappos.com. And Jay Leno doesn't write all his own jokes. These powerhouses know the secret to their success is to focus on what they do best – the things only THEY can do – and pass the rest onto someone else.
 
Before you hand your company passwords and your Rolodex over to your 16-year-old son and head out the door for that long-desired Tahitian vacation, let's review some of the basics of delegating and outsourcing. 
 
First, what's the difference? “Delegating” typically refers to handing tasks off to someone else in your organization, while “outsourcing” generally means you've contracted someone outside your company to handle specific tasks. You might delegate responding to e-mail to your assistant, while you outsource the janitorial services to a private firm. The distinction isn't a big one, but it's important because the cost structure is different. If someone's already part of your organization, they can take on additional tasks without having to be compensated for each and every one. But if you're outsourcing, passing more activities to another, outside party will mean you're paying more. 
 
As a work-at-home entrepreneur, you're likely flying solo, so you'll be doing more outsourcing than delegating. (You'll be hiring contractors rather than hiring employees who work for your company.) But the same principles still apply. 
 
Here are five questions to ask before you pass a task on to someone else: 
 
1.    Does it really need to be done?
What would happen if NO ONE did this particular task? Would it impact your business's credibility, profit, or customer service? If you can't answer “Yes” to at least one of those categories, then you might want to think about crossing this one off the master list and letting it go undone.
 
2.    Can someone else do it as well as or better than you can?
If so, then this is not your core competency, and you should pass the activity on to someone else. Let other people do their thing while you do yours.
 
3.    Will you ever have to do this again?
If this activity is a one-time deal (installing software, creating an RSS feed, registering a product with Clickbank.com), there's no value in you working your way up the learning curve. Let someone else do it for you.
 
4.    How much will it cost you to outsource?
We often overestimate how much we'll have to pay someone else to do the tasks that we can't or don't want to perform. Get an estimate before you write it off as too expensive. You may be pleasantly surprised how quickly and cheaply an “expert” can handle those tasks that are languishing at the bottom of your list.
 
5.    Do you enjoy it?
If you don't like doing it, find someone else to take it off your hands, pronto. Life's too short to spend your time on activities you detest. And even more important, your displeasure will show in the end result. Do what makes your heart sing and leave the rest to someone else.
 
Entrepreneurs are do-it-yourself types, and you may be tempted to keep everything under your own control. But by trying to do everything with your own two hands, you're actually stunting your company's growth. Let others help you out, allowing you to concentrate where you add the most value. It's the fastest and best way to grow your business. 
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Grouping Tasks for Speed and Efficiency

Pull out your new and improved To-Do list. Look it over and I bet you'll see some commonalities and patterns. You might find there are types of tasks that are all performed similarly.

How are they similar? Maybe you complete these tasks while you're in the same mindset or while using the same equipment. They might be tasks that are call-related, tasks that need to be done in the same software on the computer, tasks that require extended thinking, etc. 
By grouping these tasks together, you can save transition time between activities – and, of course, get more done in less time. These are the types of tasks that are perfect for batching: 
 
·       Tasks that occur or can be scheduled in the same physical location.
By grouping tasks in the same environment together, you save time moving back and forth. For instance, if you're meeting a client downtown, arrange several other meetings in the same general area.

Other ideas: Mailing/shipping at the post office, doctor's appointments, running errands, even daily tasks in your house (when you're in the kitchen cooking breakfast, put away the dishes in the dishwasher, too).
 

·       Tasks that occur or can be scheduled in the same location virtually.
When using certain websites or software online, you'll begin to see commonalities where you can batch tasks. Setting up specialized software can be a time-eater. If you are sending emails, log in to your account and write and send a bunch at once. For instance, why not write a week's worth of blog posts in your Word Processor and then copy and paste them all into your blog at once? You can do the same thing with article marketing. Write a series of 5 articles and then submit them all at once. Or perhaps your video creation. If you've got the software open to create one video, you might as well create several at the same time.

Other ideas: Keyword research, uploading videos to Amazon S3, Uploading blog posts, conducting interviews on Skype, submitting articles to article directories.
 

·       Tasks that are repetitive.
If you were washing clothes, would you throw one sock into the washer, add detergent, turn it on, and let it go through the cycle, then take it out and add the next sock? No way! You'd do a whole load at once to save time, energy, water, and detergent. You can do the same thing with your business-related repetitive tasks. Doing research, creating a tracking sheet, and sending e-mails to potential JV partners can easily be batched at each stage of the process.

Other ideas: Entering receipts into your accounting software program, paying bills, sending out requests for information, updating your blog security and plugins.
 

·       Tasks that have the same goal.
Performing all your marketing activities during a set time period keeps your brain in the right spot – you don't have to switch speeds from thinking about advertising and publicity to editing to bookkeeping.

Other ideas: Brainstorming new product ideas, writing articles for submission, finding affiliate products to promote.
 

One caveat: You want to perform high-value tasks, not just ones you can get done quickly. There is a huge difference between being effective and being busy. Activities that can be batched – especially repetitive tasks – often fall into the “busy” category. They're things we can churn out quickly, that make us feel like we've made good progress, and that we can cross off our list. But at the end of the day, we can find we spent our time efficiently, but not particularly effectively. That's why it's critical to evaluate what's on your list before you even begin to find ways to complete your actions more efficiently.