How effective is your to-do list? Does it help you plan your day? Does it nudge you to prioritize the right tasks? Or is it a never-ending list of things you feel guilty for not having done yet and now you're not going to do any of them? A good to-do list should serve you. You should not be at its mercy.
The best to-do lists set you off in the right direction each day and help you focus on the tasks that are most important. With the right strategies, a to-do list can help you achieve larger goals, too. Here's what you need to know to make your to-do list work for you.
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1. Choose the Right App (or Paper)
The first step in making a better to-do list is deciding where to keep it. It's important that you love the app or notebook you use for your to-do list, otherwise you might not stick with it.
Notice how I said “notebook?” While there are many benefits to putting your to-do list into an app (and I'll list them in a moment), there is nothing wrong with paper! If paper works for you, great. Likewise, a simple spreadsheet or word processing document is fine, too. Use the tool that's right for you.
Digital to-do lists have several advantages over paper, however, and it's good to at least know what they are, even if you end up using paper. Some advantages are:
They're easy to edit, which means you can update information quickly,
They have built-in reminders,
It's very hard to lose them because the list itself is usually saved in the cloud,
You can sort your tasks by priority, due date, or alphabetically, and
You can assign tasks to other people and get notified when they complete them.
If you are in the market for a to-do list app, which one is best? Having tested dozens of them, I tend to recommend Todoist, Asana, and Things more often than others. But there are many other options. OmniFocus is good for people who add a lot of detail to their tasks. Trello speaks to visually driven people. Microsoft To Do works well with Office and Windows 10. Google Tasks is great for its Google Workspace integration. Habitica might draw your attention if you like gamification. And so on.
2. Make More Than One List
You shouldn't have just one to-do list. You should have a few lists that cover the major categories of your life, such as Work Tasks, Personal To-Dos, and Household Chores. Having more than one list helps you focus. When you're at work, you don't want to be distracted by your personal list. When you're at home, you don't want to be burdened thinking about your work responsibilities.
Don't hold back. Make lists for everything you think of! The useful ones will stick around. You can scrap any that end up not being useful to you.
Some other ideas are:
Someday (where you write down unimportant tasks that you might do someday),
Weekend (for anything you want to do on the weekend but don't want to be distracted by during the week), and
Chores for Kids.
Remember, you can add new lists or rename them at any time.
3. Write Down Your Tasks as Soon as You Think of Them
When a new task pops into your head, write it down as quickly as possible. Adding tasks when you think of them prevents you from dwelling on them. Once it's written down, you don't need to remember it anymore, so you can purge the thought from your brain.
If your to-do app has a keyboard shortcut for adding a new task, learn it. If your app has a mobile phone shortcut, set it up.
For those using paper, keep a bit of scrap paper near you while you work to jot down distracting thoughts quickly and then copy them into your official to-do lists when it's convenient.
Adding due dates to tasks in your Asana to-do list helps you prioritize.
4. Assign Due Dates
Any time a task has a due date, add it. Seeing when tasks are due helps you prioritize.
Not every task needs a hard and fast due date, but sometimes it helps to add one anyway for two reasons.
First, most to-do apps let you see what's due today, tomorrow, and later in the week, regardless of which list they're in. This way, you can see everything due today and get a sense of how the day will go. You might also take a moment to reschedule some tasks if you're feeling overwhelmed just looking at everything due within the next week.
Second, by assigning due dates to your tasks, you're effectively planning out your week, which is an excellent time-management strategy.
5. Revise Your To-Do Lists Daily
Start every day by throwing an eye over your task list and assessing whether it's reasonable. Then, revise it.
If you have too many tasks scheduled for the day and you know you won't get to them all, you're setting yourself up for failure.
6. Limit Yourself to 3–5 Tasks Daily
What is your daily task limit? It depends on what kinds of tasks you write down and how difficult they are to complete.
For most people, I recommend starting out by limiting yourself to three to five tasks per day. It might not sound like a lot, but if you focus on writing down the three most important things you need to do today, you might find that's already a lot to get through.
Why not write down more? If you write down too many tasks and don't get to them all, then you must defer them to another day. That means re-prioritizing and changing your list, which is unnecessary work that causes stress and can feel self-defeating.
By having a small number of tasks, you're more likely to finish them. The more you finish all your tasks, the better you'll feel about your to-do lists overall. That positive feeling can fuel you going forward.
Your three to five tasks should be important things that you must do. And no more than two of them should be routine tasks, like taking daily medication. Focus on your intention for the day. That's what you should write down.
Over time, track how many tasks you check off each day (the best to-do apps track it for you) and you'll get a sense of the right number of tasks for you, in case it's not three to five.
Todoist tracks how many tasks you complete each day and week, and creates a chart showing your progress.
7. Put Tasks on Your To-Do List, Not Goals
What you write on your to-do list matters. Put tasks on your lists, rather than objectives and goals. To do that, you need to know the difference between them.
Goals are big-picture achievements or desired outcomes. They're usually difficult to quantify. An example is “become fluent in Hindi.” Putting that on your to-do list wouldn't be very effective.
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Objectives are markers on the way to reaching a goal. It's much easier to confuse these with tasks because objectives are more specific and quantifiable. An example of an objective is “be able to hold a conversation in Hindi about my favorite movies for three minutes.”
So what are tasks? Tasks are the actions you take to reach an objective. Break an objective down and you have your tasks. Very often they're single events (though they can repeat). A task might be “learn three new Hindi verbs” or “study Hindi for 30 minutes.”
Tasks—not goals or objectives—are what belong on a daily to-do list.
8. Keep Goals and Objectives Separate
In a perfect world, many of the tasks you get done each day will be in pursuit of a bigger goal. You should know what your goals are, but you don't need to write them on your daily to-do list.
Instead, write your goals and objectives somewhere else. It might still be in your to-do list app or notebook, but not on the list that you look at each day. Other places you can write down goals are your journal or a note-taking app.
Refer to your goals from time to time. Check in on them and revise them. Just don't let them distract you from the specific things you need to do today.
9. Look at Your To-Do List Often
A looked-at list is a used list. An effective to-do list guides you throughout your day, which means you need to look at it often. Look at it each morning to mentally prepare for the day ahead. Look at it after lunch so you know what else you need to focus on for the rest of the day. Revise it at the end of the day to reschedule tasks you missed.
Make a habit of looking over everything you have planned for the coming week in advance so that you can better plan your time and make adjustments.
During the day, if you start to feel lost in what you're doing or need a break from it, look at your to-do list for something small and easy (a less demanding task that doesn't require high focus) that you can tackle in the meantime.
The more you look at your list, the more you'll trust it. The more you trust it, the less you have to remember what tasks you must do. The less you have to remember, the more you free your mind to focus on the task at hand.
10. Make Your To-Do List Scannable
If you look at your to-do list often, you'll quickly realize how helpful it is to see what you need at a glance.
Use tight language or shorthand to write your tasks. Many apps have priority ratings, stars, tags, and other details that you can add to important tasks to make them stand out. Color-code your tasks if that helps. Apply icons that give you more information about the task, such as whether it requires a phone call or is related to healthcare. No matter how quickly you look at your to-do list, you should be able to reap a lot of information about what needs to get done.
Check Those Boxes
A great to-do list is at the heart of personal productivity. It's such a joy to find a task-management app and process that works for you. Checking off items on your list gives you a feeling of accomplishment and is a key element of getting organized. A reliable to-do system makes life both easier and less stressful.
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