Getting the most out of your To-do list with proper list design

This article is meant to be a companion piece to the article from last week on why you should have a To-do list. If you haven’t read last week’s article, be sure to read it here first. If you already use a To-do list and are here for the tips I promised this week, keep reading.

Stick to the medium that works for you

There is really no difference between a paper list and a digital list. If writing things down on a notebook is what works for you, stick to it. If, however, like most of us in the digital era, you prefer a software that syncs effortlessly between your phone and laptop, that’s also fine. It’s very important that you experiment a bit to find the medium you are most comfortable with. If updating your list feels too much like a chore, the purpose of the to-do list has been defeated even before you start and you should consider changing to a medium that you are most comfortable with.

Digital vs Analog - Copy
Digital vs Analog: Your Call

Be consistent

Choose the same time every day  to review and update your lists. This could be at the end of the day before you leave the office, at night before bed or early in the morning before breakfast. Regardless, which time of day you choose, make sure it’s one you can easily stick to. These daily review sessions are a great time to see what you achieved during the day and give yourself a small pat on the back for being even more productive. They are also a good time to analyse why some tasks couldn’t get done and reschedule as necessary. You can’t afford to skip this.

Create Multiple lists

You could have a Master list that contains all the items you wish to get done in 2019. However, a year is too long a period of time to manage tasks. What you would like to achieve in a year might look so daunting that you fail to start. To avoid fear of failure and procrastination defeating your goals, create separate lists for monthly, weekly and daily tasks. This will ensure you not only get more tasks done but also that the tasks you work on are those that align with your goals for the year. You can also have a different list for tasks you need to do at home and those you need to do at work. This helps you keep your personal and official lives separate.

My prioritised to-do list
Create a prioritised to-do list

Not all Tasks are created equal

20% of your tasks are responsible for 80% of your output.

–  Pareto Principle

If there are 10 tasks on your to-do list for the day, they won’t all have the same impact on your goals. The Pareto Principle states that “20% of your tasks are responsible for 80% of your output.” Chances are there are 2 very important tasks that need to get done today and 3 less important tasks. The remaining 5 are probably tasks you can reschedule if you don’t finish them on that day. Start work on the first most important task for the day. When you are done, move to the next important task. This way, even if the tasks run over schedule and you don’t get everything else done, you can still congratulate yourself at the end of the day knowing your most important tasks got done.

Be specific

“Work on research project” looks like a great list item but it doesn’t tell you anything specific. There is no incentive to get started. A better way to create that task on your To-do list would be “Write first draft of my research questionnaire.” This breaks it down to a simple task you can work on during the day. A list item is meant to be a specific task you can complete in a single work session. Be sure to break tasks down to the smallest level of work. If it’s too vague, there is no pressure to get started because there is no end in sight. Your mind hates obscurity and will fill in the gaps with all the reasons why you shouldn’t start. You want to avoid this at all costs..

Time all tasks

When you have finished creating your tasks for the day, be sure to add an estimate of the number of minutes or hours you need to complete that task. For example, sort laundry 4.30pm to 5pm. Make sure to add time for breaks as well. It may be tempting to work nonstop through the day (and night) but if you don’t allow yourself time to rest, you will only risk burnout and reduced efficiency.

A picture of a clock face reading 1 0'clock
How long will a task take?

Celebrate small victories

If you have trouble getting started on your tasks every morning, start your list with a few simple tasks that you can complete quickly such as making your bed or putting your clothes in the laundry basket. You’d have recorded your first victory of the day immediately after waking up. Celebrating your small victories helps you create momentum. Momentum is the positive feeling you get as you check off that item on your list and makes you eager to get to the next one. If you can score a few quick victories in the morning even before breakfast, you are already starting the day on a positive note and are more likely to put in more effort.

A picture of a medal
Give yourself a medal

A final word of caution, don’t stress yourself if you are unable to complete all tasks on your To-do list on a given day. There will always be unforeseen circumstances that affect your ability to complete tasks. Even I have to reschedule tasks now and then. It doesn’t mean you are an unproductive person. In fact, that’s one of the best points in favour of a To-do list: the ability to reschedule to deal with an emergency. As long as you are getting a lot more important tasks done within a reasonable amount of time, you are doing fine. If you find yourself still unable to get the important tasks done despite having a well-structured To-do list, then you probably need to work on other areas of your life. Make sure you continue following this blog as I plan to discuss what you can do to improve your productivity.

Have any tricks and tips that have helped you achieve more with a To-do list, why don’t you share them below. Have a specific question? Ask away or send an email. If you’re still not following this blog, don’t forget to click on the button.

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