When’s the last time you made a to-do list? This morning? Where did you make the list? On the back of an envelope or in your smartphone?
To-do lists take many forms and the list that works is the one you’ll use. If you avoid using them because you’re keeping it all in your head, remember that it’s better to use your brain to thing about things rather than think of them.
If you’re already a regular user of to-do lists, here are 5 tips for an effective to-do list that might tweak your list-making:
1. Don’t list all the stuff you’re going to do tomorrow or soon or someday. It will look overwhelming and set up a mental block. Sure, you need to keep all of that stuff on a list, just not on today’s list. Your brain will think you should be doing all of it right now and that sets you up for feelings of failure and vague guilt.
2. Get specific. For example, write “Call Rod about converting the mp3 (888)123-4567” rather than “Call Rod.” Having the details when it’s time to “do” will make it more likely that you’ll get it done rather than put it off because you can’t remember why you’re calling or you need to go look up a phone number. If you don’t have the phone number when you’re writing the list, make it a to-do list item: “Get Rod’s phone number.”
3. Make sure your list includes only items that you can actually “do.” You can’t “do” a project. You can’t DO “redesign the website.” You can DO “choose three possible color schemes from whateverwebsite.com.” You can DO “email header graphic to Kendra.”
4. Keep today’s list short. Before you laugh hysterically and gasp that you have a million things to do, take a deep breath. There are very few things in life that are so urgent someone will die if you don’t get them done. And yes, there are days when we do have many important things to do, especially when working on a deadline. But for the majority of our days we can whittle our list down to essentials. You will almost certainly accomplish much more than what’s on your list, especially when you’re on a roll from blazing through your list. Just don’t set yourself up for stress by listing 2,367 items when you know in your heart that you won’t be able to do a fraction of them.
5. Take care that negative imagination doesn’t derail your to-do list before you start. How often do we approach our to-do list with thoughts like I got this! or Let’s go!? Not often enough, I’m afraid. We don’t have to jump up and down, but do notice if you’ve gotten into a habit of dreading or fearing your to-do list. Often just realizing where we’ve allowed our thoughts to drift will help us get back on track.
A to-do list is a very basic part of managing tasks, but it’s smart to periodically do a quick checkup on your list-making habits. Just one tweak can improve your productivity and give you a boost of mental energy to get more done.