Simplify your To Do List (part 2)

Struggling with a 5-page To Do list? Wondering where to start? How to prioritize? The list often turns into a blur of competing priorities, and it’s overwhelming to look at it all at once. Here’s a trick: pick a theme for the week.

In my last post about To Do lists, I talked about how people get stuck looking at the same To Do items week after week, and how to fix that. This post focuses on how to make sense of the sheer volume of possible things to do as an entrepreneur.

Stacks of food, etc.

Ask yourself this question to find your theme: what one substantial thing could you do this week to move your business forward most powerfully? Some recent answers I’ve heard are: “create a fundraising slide deck” (here is a great post about how to do that), “reach agreement with co-founder on how we’ll be compensated” (here is a nifty tool you can use for that), “find at least three strong possibilities for office space”,  or “implement a transparent, collaborative way of estimating consulting projects”. If people are feeling really behind, they will sometimes say: “catch up on email and phonecalls” or “bring my billing up to date”, but those are unlikely candidates. Generally, it should be something that will feel like really fantastic forward progress once you get it done, and will take a multi-hour block or three during the week.

I have people choose a theme for the week; Bryan Franklin actually recommends choosing an even broader theme every 6-12 months; I like his post about that, and I’m still digesting the ways in which our philosophies are both similar and different.

You will be tempted to say: but I have three themes! Or five! No really! I’m special! To that I say: hogwash. Choose ONE theme. Choose a backup option, if you want to, but until you’re done with the first, don’t start the second. Most entrepreneurs will not get to the second theme in one week.

Once you’ve chosen your theme for the week, figure out what steps you need to take to accomplish it. Put some reasonably-sized chunks of time in your calendar to accomplish this theme. THEN, you can fill in a bunch of the smaller tasks on your calendar, or use unbooked time to whittle down other parts of your ToDo list as you see fit. What this insures is that you get work done on a significant project, and your business actually grows in the direction you care about.

And finally: when you are sitting down during the time to accomplish what you set out of do, set aside all of the other tasks, concerns, worries and priorities, for real. It often works best to turn off the Internets, silence your phone, and take a moment to clear your mind of all of the other things that you want to accomplish. The focus that you bring to this theme is crucial in getting it done, and getting it done well. You chose something that really, really matters, right? Enough to give it your full attention? Then go for it. The rest of the things on your ToDo list will still be there after a few hours, I promise.

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.