Having a to-do list should be incredibly straightforward. Every day you write down a task that needs to be done, and as you complete tasks, they are removed from the list. For some reason, however, most people just do not get around to completing this famous to-do list. This article will help you understand how to improve your existing to-do list so you will finally achieve the success you deserve.
Choose the right app (or paper)
Dozens of apps can help you make and manage to-do lists. Some are basic; others include features such as reminders, recurring tasks, and categories for similar tasks (e.g., errands or work). You’ll have to decide what features are important to you, but it may take some trial and error before you find the right one.
If digital options aren’t your thing, try a paper version instead. Many people find they can concentrate better when writing notes by hand instead of typing on a computer or phone. Plus, it’s hard to ignore an old-fashioned post-it note stuck on your computer monitor.
Create more than one list
A daily list
Keep this one short and manageable. It should contain only those things that must get done today or that are well within your control (like phone calls you can make at any time).
A longer-term list
This is where everything else goes: what needs to get done this week, this month, this quarter, etc. It also includes other projects and ideas that don’t have a specific deadline yet (you might put a target date next to each item if you want). The trick here is keeping it organized by context or type of task so you can quickly refer to it when appropriate.
Write down a task as soon as you think about it
When something pops into your mind, write it down immediately. Don’t wait until later because you will forget it. This way, your mind is free from keeping track of many things at once, so you can focus on what’s in front of you (e.g., an email conversation, reading an article for research purposes).
By the way, this applies not only to tasks but also to ideas that pop into your mind while doing something else. Just jot them down somewhere so they don’t distract you while doing the current task, and then come back to them later when it makes sense.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when creating their to-do list is that they only think about what they need to do today. If something doesn’t need to be done today, it doesn’t appear on the list – and this means that you never really get around to doing it.
Instead, try thinking strategically about how often certain tasks need to be done. Then, schedule them into your calendar strategically – for example, once every two weeks or once every month. This will allow you to plan much more effectively and ensure that essential tasks aren’t neglected because they don’t need to be completed today.
Be honest with yourself
How long do you really need to complete each task? How much time do you have left in the day to accomplish it? If you’re realistic about your time and priorities, you’ll find that some tasks naturally bump up on your list, while others can wait until tomorrow (or next week).
Break down big tasks into smaller ones
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it’s time to tackle a major project like planning a vacation or writing a research paper. Start by breaking the big task into smaller ones. For example, research hotels, call friends, book flights, buy gifts. This will help you stay focused on one part of the project at a time and prevent you from feeling like you’re facing an impossible hurdle.
Assign due dates
Assigning due dates to your to-do list will keep you focused and aware of what needs to be done by when. It will also help prioritize tasks based on their due dates.
You can assign due dates in two ways, manually and automatically. You can manually set due dates when you add something to your list or edit it later. Some platforms like TickTick have a feature where you can automatically schedule things for the next day or week.
Categorization helps you to group similar items and make sure they’re not forgotten in the context of other tasks. For example, suppose you have an important project at work. In that case, you may want to create a category just for that project, where the individual items within that project can be kept separate from your personal life and other work projects.
This way, when you’re preparing for an important meeting, you can check only one section of your list – rather than searching through the entire thing.
Turn your to-do list into a calendar event or reminder
First, a quick hack that can get immediate results: Turn your to-do list into an actual calendar event or reminder. This works especially well if you have an item on your list that can reasonably be expected to take just 15 minutes or less (for example, “a virtual meeting” or “Send birthday card”).
How do you do this? It depends on the app you’re using. If you’re using Google Calendar, create an event with the name of the task and set it for 15 minutes from now.
Check off items as soon as you complete them
It’s easy to get in the habit of marking off items when you’ve finished them, but it’s also easy not to do it. Psychologically, this can be extremely rewarding – tiny dopamine hits every time you mark something off. It feels good. And unlike the rest of life, where there can be a lot of gray areas and fuzzy edges, the to-do list is clear: You finished the task, or you didn’t.
Then there’s the fact that marking things off gives you an instant view of how much work you’re getting done in a day. If you see ten tasks marked off and only three more left for the day, it might give you some extra motivation to finish them up so you can go home early.
Conversely, if you see that there are still seven tasks remaining and it’s already 4:30 p.m., it might motivate you to work harder and faster so that you can leave on time for your kid’s soccer game or whatever else is important to you at the moment.
Before you begin your next to-do list, take a moment to think over what this list is exactly doing for you. If you don’t need a paper to-do list anymore, it might be worth trying out an app or website instead. Or, if the stock to-do list isn’t meeting any of your productivity needs, consider making some tweaks until it better meets your needs. You may come away with a list that works much better for you – and may make you feel more motivated as well.