To write a to-do list is a simple thing, but it’s another to get things done on it. Over the years, many people have created to-do lists only for them to do absolutely nothing at all.
Because of this, I’ve heard from many people that to-do lists are a waste of time. That they are an ineffective productivity tool and should be banished from the face of the Earth.
But the reality is that we do need something like that.
A list of goals or dreams.
Or a simple to-do list.
It provides a crucial compass – or direction – to push ourselves forward. I’ve recognized this is key for my life as I’m more productive when I’ve outlined my next steps. And I know other people have similar processes like me.
I’d also argue that these lists form part of a system and can get you into the habit of getting things done. This much is true based on the points I’ve made below. The tips and tricks below will help you in creating a solid to-do list and getting things done.
Only Write Down What You Need To Know
“The biggest problem with to-do lists is they’re overcrowded with stuff.”
One of the biggest arguing points is that people pile everything on the list. From doing your usual everyday activities to even tacking bullet points to other tasks.
While they are right that this is an ineffective way to get things done, people are already missing the point – if only slightly.
The point of a to-do list isn’t to include every task that you know you ought to do. It’s adding the tasks that you need to know about.
You want to put together a list that works for you. One such way to do that is asking yourself:
“What is it that I need to know in order to get things done?”
For some people, it is putting together those extensive lists. But I can imagine for most people it’s having a shorter list with clear and distinct targets in mind. And for others, it’s merely winging it and putting together a list on the fly.
My list of daily tasks is small on purpose. As I’ve said in the past my list tends to have three items. Sometimes more depending on the day.
I like the list short because it keeps me focused on the task rather than being fixated on the dopamine rush I get from scratching an item off the list. That dopamine rush is one of the primary reasons people pile on so many items.
Either way, you want the list to work for you and that means putting down what you need to know.
MIT: most important tasks. One good trick is to have at least two items that absolutely must get done today. It doesn’t have to be something incredibly urgent, but it could be urgent for you. It could be wrapping up a report that’s due next week or cleaning around the house.
Whatever the case is, make those tasks so important in your head that you have to get them done. Even if you don’t manage to clear through the other items, getting the most significant items off the list will remove a lot of mental strain.
You may even get a sense of fulfilment from finishing that work.
I find this strategy to be incredibly powerful as it’s a way to curb procrastination. MITs create a sense of urgency and since most of us are sensitive to pressure, most people will stop what they’re doing and prioritize a more pressing task.
Make A Breakable To-Do List
To expand on what you need to know, I’d also consider making your to-do list breakable. What I mean by this is to have items broken into multiple but smaller steps.
As I touched on briefly people shut down when they see extensive lists. For me that doesn’t tend to be the case when you’re thinking of longer-term lists. For example, on top of my daily to-do list, I have a long-term list.
Right now it’s a series of tasks I want to complete before the end of this year.
But exploring that area further, size isn’t the only thing that shuts us down from our list. It’s also a sense of fear and feeling overwhelmed.
So while the size is certainly a factor, I believe that by breaking down larger goals into smaller steps is easier. After all you still need to convince your brain to do the task. I’d think that telling your brain to take a baby step forward is easier than making a massive leap.
To put this in practice consider the wording of your tasks. Often times in their raw state, dreams, goals, or tasks are vague.
We tell ourselves to do that research paper or file a report.
Our desire is to get a promotion, find a suitable partner, get a fancy car.
But we never spell out the steps to get to that point.
How long should you work on it?
When should you stop?
What model am I looking at?
What is my ideal partner? What must I do to attract them?
There are so many questions and it can be tricky to even start. So make a point of breaking those goals into smaller tasks.
Maybe it’s going on a dating site and trying it out. Or perhaps you want to set aside some money and start saving it up little by little.
Having those measurable goals makes it easier to overcome as you have a clearer sense of where to go. After all, the best way to stop yourself is to give yourself a goal that lacks any sort of direction or steps.
Consider Adding More Information
One other tip I’ve been using a lot is adding more information. You can call it prep work too. The idea is to be including all the information you need to get the task done properly.
Not necessarily what you need to know but things that’ll help you actually finish the task.
Need to call or text someone? Write out their phone number.
Need to do a research paper? Why not paste some potential resources on the paper to better steer your first draft.
Want to be working out more? Set up a mat prior to with your weights and equipment and your exercise clothes right there.
What I find to be the most helpful aspect is to have everything set up prior to doing the work. The prep work is often where people get held up on and is half the battle.
So by making it easier for you to get right to the task, the more eager and excited you can get to doing the actual work.
Set A Time Limit On Your To-Do List
MITs are helpful because they create a sense of urgency. But one other element to creating urgency is time. Time is our most valuable resource and we’re constantly looking for ways to maximize our time.
So to add to that pile, one thing I’d suggest is if you really need to get things done, set up a timer. I mentioned earlier it works wonders and here is why.
The process is Parkinson’s law, which states that:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
It’s fancy talk for the time to complete a task is as much as you give yourself to complete it.
This is why creating a sense of urgency can be so helpful. If you tell yourself you only have a few hours to finish a task, you’ll prioritize the most important things to complete that task.
For example if you give yourself an hour to write a research paper or a blog post, you’ll focus on summarizing your arguments and introduction. There’s less priority checking for flow, grammar and spelling mistakes at the start.
This also makes sense from a procrastination standpoint. People procrastinate when they use a large time frame to complete a task (amongst other reasons). But when people accept and abuse that large time frame, it’s suggesting this isn’t as important.
I find in cases with my client work, I don’t tend to put it off since it’s my main source for living. Compare that to my own articles and you can see where my priorities lay.
My point is though that if you give yourself a smaller window (as I’m training myself to do), you’ll find your attitude shifting and how you view your work.
Avoid Using Old Lists
I’ll put this advice out there as I can understand why this can be useful for people. I personally have a habit of adding one task to a list, let it sit for a few days, and add more to it later. That or sometimes I look over to that list and remind myself of a task that I’ve been putting off.
For me using an old list works mainly because I keep in mind a lot of the other things I mentioned thus far. I don’t see a point of making a new list altogether when my current list is an item or two.
That being said, people don’t make lists like I do.
So I can see a point in making a new list. It’s one way to prevent clogging up the list with all kinds of tasks. Some tasks we think are really important but after a while realize they aren’t as crucial.
Being able to start fresh allows us to remind ourselves what is most important to us and what we want to prioritize during the day.
Consider Writing A “To-Don’t” List
Another strategy that’s been passed down by some people is a to-don’t list. It’s a list of things you don’t want to be doing.
Because those things are what get in the way of you completing your to-do list and achieving your goals.
This is a strategy that I recommend for those who have a real issue with procrastination or are generally unproductive. I suggest this because I was in a similar boat when I first started my writing business. The only difference is I didn’t have a list of things to not do. Nor did I have a to-do list back then.
I find a to-don’t list helpful in this respect because it allows you to pinpoint problems that need solving.
Furthermore, it pushes you to think of creative solutions to overcome them.
Have trouble by constantly checking your emails? Add “Don’t check emails until 10 am” to your to-don’t list.
Spend too much time on social media? Add a similar item to the list.
Does your productivity crash in the afternoon due to coffee or what you’re eating? Add “Don’t have a heavy lunch” or “Don’t drink two large cups of coffee.”
You can also have specific rules in place whenever you are focusing. Don’t answer emails, texts, or phone calls from anyone during those focus sessions.
The idea behind a to-don’t list is to find those problems and fixing them. In the scenarios I presented above it’s more of a matter of willpower. But I know not everyone has great willpower.
In those situations, I’d encourage other ways to give yourself incentives. Ideas are:
- If you spend a lot of time on your phone, hide it in your desk or power it off so you don’t hear notifications.
- Dwelling on too many sites? Consider getting a site blocker app like ColdTurkey.
- Invest in a water bottle and make a point of filling it up and drinking from it. I use HydrateSpark which lights up if I am lacking water.
- Brown bag your lunch for work or consider making leftovers of last night’s meal.
There are all kinds of creative solutions to the problems I presented.
Remember To Keep Your To-Do List Realistic
I keep my lists short on purpose even though I know I could be adding more to it. The reason I don’t is a matter of motivation and adding realistic expectations.
While I did say that there will be times where we won’t finish everything on our list and that’s okay, it’s not okay if that’s a common occurrence. If you have items on your list that linger around every single day, it can be demoralizing for some.
So by making a list that you can realistically complete will be more useful. It’ll be a way to maintain motivation and create a sense of progress.
Sure we have lots of goals and dreams and tasks we want to complete. But I find it to be very helpful to wait and muddle tasks over some times. Life is incredibly unpredictable and a better opportunity might present itself that is a smarter thing to do than what we originally thought.
But in terms of the tasks we are certain about, you don’t want to pile them up. Make the list realistic with the amount of time you do have.
To do this, look at your overall schedule and ask yourself how much time you have for other things. Take a look at how you spend your time outside of work and challenge yourself to do different things.
If you spend a lot of time on Youtube or Netflix, challenge yourself to use that time productively. Have the video or show as background music to something else you want to work on.
Be Flexible With The List
This leads to my final point of viewing your to-do list. I believe mindset is a key part of doing tasks and getting them done. From my experience, our ability to jump from task to task is based entirely on our mood and what we have left to complete.
Take the research Atlassian did. While it was involved with a team dynamic, the same can be said for individuals. If a task makes us angry, that anger drains our motivation and overall productivity. On the other hand, happiness will boost it.
With that in mind, we go back to viewing our list and understand how it makes us feel overall. Not to mention the individual tasks we need to do.
From there comes my advice on being flexible.
Every task and the list itself is not set in stone.
Remind yourself that you can always change and rearrange tasks.
I believe this helps in the early stages as sometimes we set too vague of a task and we never bother doing it. That or maybe we’ve added too many tasks and we ought to have moved the task to another day.
The idea here is that the tasks we need to do are flexible and that not every single one of them needs to be done immediately. Definitely set yourself to a good standard and work ethic, but realize that you can always wait if it doesn’t feel quite right or you’re running into a brick wall.
After all, stress leads to doubt and eventually we won’t get anything done.
Use Your To-Do List To Get Things Done
To-do lists are a powerful tool when we have the right attitude and method revolving around them. And what’s so incredible is that the advice thus far is only the start. There are many words of wisdom out there and that’s because people have their own way for doing to-do lists.
Indeed, this information is a good base but I encourage you to experiment. Explore what other tricks you can use to boost your productivity. You never know, you may find an effective method that you can stand behind in the future.
To your growth!
Eric S Burdon