We spend all our days and half our nights trying to get through our to-do list. We’re like rats in a cage. We’re not going anywhere, but we keep running on that wheel until we’re exhausted anyway.

What if I told you that it didn’t have to be that way?

Hundreds of thousands of people add the words “Project Manager” to their job description. If you’re not, it’s time for you to start. Project management is a big, fancy term for knowing how to design, stage, prioritize and execute, and it’s a 100%, fail proof way to get through your to-do list as painlessly and efficiently as possible.

1) Define the Project

(Or, as I like to call it, figure out what you’re ACTUALLY trying to do.)

This seems like an obvious one, but somehow, it’s not. Think of your to-do list like a movie. Almost every movie ends with hours of film being left on the cutting room floor when editors decide it doesn’t fit.

When you’re working on projects, you’re probably leaving hours of work on the cutting room floor. This can include drafts that didn’t make the cut, phone calls that end up winding down rabbit holes, and ideas that just fizzled out before they could come to fruition. Not to mention projects that end up cancelled or scrapped due to a lack of funding.

If you can clearly define your end product before you get started, you can stage out your processes and save yourself hours of lost time.

2) Stage Your Project

Now that you know what your end product is going to be, it’s time to figure out how to get there. This is a process called staging. It involves breaking a project down into smaller pieces, then making a plan for how you’re going to get it done.

Linear vs. Adaptive Project Staging.

This is a concept that I stumbled on in the book, “One Step at a Time: The Staged Development of Geologic Repositories for High Level Radioactive Waste”, published by the National Research Council.

I know. The book title’s a mouthful, and when you start thinking about radioactive waste you probably tune out on how it could apply to your business. But stay with me here. The concept is just as sound if you’re selling a product or providing a service.

Linear staging is what most of us are used to. There’s a single, predetermined path to that fully defined end point. Progress is measured in milestones, points of achievement that tell you you’re getting where you need to be. By defining these milestones, you’re able to break the project down into manageable pieces.

But what if your end point isn’t so clearly defined? What if what you have is a problem, and the project is to come up with a solution? At this point, adaptive staging is a much better fit. You’re working in phases, stages and decision points rather than pre-determined milestones.

Decision points evaluate the current status of the project, look at the end point, and then determine how the next stage is going to go. This method of staging is much more flexible, keeping goals short term and preventing hours of lost work and the inevitable migraine when sudden changes need to be made.

Project Advisory helps ensure that decision points are strategically aligned with the project’s overall objectives, fostering efficient and informed decision-making throughout its lifecycle.

3) Prioritize

What needs to be done right now? What needs approval from other parties before it can be accomplished? What tasks promise to be difficult sticking points that might take days to untangle?

These are the tasks you want to tackle first.

If you’re one of those people who likes to take a project and get it done from start to finish, you’re going to HATE this step. Prioritizing means tackling pieces from many different projects at any point in time to keep them all running smoothly. Because small goals are constantly being met, you’re not going to see the big jump in progress you would if you just tackled one at a time.

It’s okay. It might take a little bit of getting used to, but eventually the smooth flow of progress will make it all worth it.

The end product of all of this planning is a smooth work flow that will minimize your stress, maximize your productivity, and whittle down that to-do list once and for all.

Check out our infographic on time management tips for more helpful information.

So get out there and do it.