Don’t Let Your To-Do List MOCK You

by Phil Wrzesinski

My first child was born in late September. In the toy industry, we call that “bad timing.” Although the busy season in terms of sales doesn’t hit until November, the busy season for toy store owners and managers kicks into high gear the day after Labor Day. We have promotional events to plan, advertising campaigns to design, hiring and training of seasonal staff, and finalizing the big holiday orders. The To-Do List grew faster in October than I could cross things off.

I found that my Octobers were infinitely busier and more worrisome than my Decembers. By December the ordering was done, the hiring was done, and the ad campaign was in full swing. All I had to do then was sell and restock the shelves.

I also found that the better organized I was in October, the more fun I had in December. I liked selling toys, restocking shelves, oh, and counting the money. A better-planned October always led to a smoother December.

Unfortunately, the first few Octobers I was at the helm, I let the To-Do List control me instead of me controlling it. It mocked me with its never-ending set of tasks. Putting out fires, doing daily chores, answering phone calls from salespeople, and handling requests to “talk to the manager” always interrupted the To-Do List until I had more to do than time to do it.

In 1998 I had no choice but to find a better way to stay organized and accomplish my tasks. Over the years I refined these approaches and still use these techniques today.

Show up early

I know you already work too many hours. Plus, as the owner you’re never “not working.” But when you choose to work is almost as critical as what you choose to work on. When my sons started going to middle school, I was dropping them off at 7:15 a.m. and then heading straight to work. The store didn’t open until 9:30 a.m. I was able to get two solid hours of uninterrupted work done every morning. That two hours not only gave me a solid block to work on larger tasks, it also started my day off with a boost of confidence as I often was able to cross something off my list.

If you have the ability to go into work early (or simply get up early if you can work from home), those quiet hours can be incredibly productive for heavy reading, writing, and creative tasks.

Set aside blocks of time

Even if your home life doesn’t allow you those early mornings when the phone is quiet, you need big blocks of time when you can work without interruption. Whether that happens in the store or not, you need to set aside that time and protect it carefully.

Make sure your staff knows you will be unavailable. Make sure your phone is turned off – even your cell phone. Make sure you have everything you need to work on the task at hand before your block of time begins.

Your block needs to be at least two hours long, but no more than four. After four hours your productivity will go down.

As you put together your To-Do List, have two lists – one of small tasks to do as you have time, and one that lists larger tasks that you’ll work on specifically in those blocks.

Because I worked most Saturdays, I took Thursday as my “day off.” The question each Thursday, however, was not will Phil show up on his day off, but when will Phil show up? I would usually put a couple hours into a big project and then head home. The staff would simply say to those who called or asked for me, “Sorry, it is Phil’s day off.”

Make a deadline list

Parkinson’s Law states that the amount of work to do will expand to fit the time available. In other words, the more time you have the more work you have to do. But procrastination teaches us that the amount of work done is inversely proportional to the amount of time left to do it. In other words, if it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.

When you’re up against a deadline, there is some amazing power there for staying focused and getting things accomplished. I found I did some of my best work under the gun. Some people thrive, others wilt under the pressure. But even those who wilt at the last second often find the resources to get the work done on time when given a reasonable deadline.

So instead of making a To-Do List, reverse-engineer the tasks by starting at the end and setting deadlines for each step. For instance, if you need to hire and train seasonal staff, your list might look like this.

November 15 – All Seasonal Staff Hired and in Training

November 14 – Training Manuals Updated

November 10 – All Seasonal Staff Job Offers Given

November 9 – All Background Checks Completed

November 6 – All Interviews Completed

October 25 – Hiring Ads Written and Placed

October 21 – Seasonal Staff Job Description Updated

Now rewrite that list in chronological order with deadlines. It will give you a much better To-Do List because it reminds you when certain things need to get done and helps you stay focused on where to put your energies next. You can even break down larger tasks into smaller deadlines. For instance, if your training manual needs a major overhaul, break that task down into three smaller tasks with deadlines for each one.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

You don’t have to do everything on your list. You just think you do. I have made all the same excuses you have: “I can do it faster than anyone else,” “It will take me longer to explain it than to do it myself,” “No one will do it as well as I will,” and “That isn’t in their job description.”

They are merely excuses, and they are holding you back. Your staff has a capacity far greater than you might imagine. You just haven’t given them the time to show you all they can do.

The first step in delegation is to give them the skills, knowledge, and authority to handle all of the “I need to speak to a manager,” moments. Teach them how to handle unhappy customers. Teach them how to deal with returns, refunds, and exchanges. Teach them how to take in and handle requests for donations.

Teach them how to schedule sales people who cold-call. That step alone will free up more time for you to handle your To-Do List.

You have people on your team who want more to do, who want more responsibility. Part of your strength as a manager is how well you help them learn to do more. The benefits to delegating go far beyond your ability to cross things off your To-Do List.

Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, shows how Purpose and Mastery are two traits that motivate employees to intrinsically do better on the job. When you give someone more responsibility and push them to learn new skills to handle those responsibilities, it increases their internal motivation (Mastery). When you give someone a chance to be part of the bigger picture, to do something that is greater than just answering phones and ringing up customers, you give them a greater sense of Purpose.

In 1998, I was in my third year at the helm of the advertising and also in charge of hiring/training our 10 to 12 seasonal employees. The sleepless nights from having a new baby made that October a true learning experience for me. I had no choice but to get organized and find a better, less-stressful way to get through my To-Do List.

The organization paid off. That Christmas turned out to be busiest in our first 49 years of business, and one of my favorite Decembers ever!

Get control of your To-Do List and it will pay off in the long run. You have the tools now to do that.

As the former owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan, Philip C. Wrzesinski understands the challenges faced by independent merchants. Today, the speaker, author, and retail educator uses the lessons he’s learned in a lifetime of retail to help others find their success. You can learn more about Phil at

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