10 Ways to Make Better To-Do Lists
Want to make progress in your daily tasks? An effective to-do list can make a huge difference, and these easy tips will help you build the best lists possible.
How effective is your to-do list? Does it help you plan your day? Does it help you prioritize? 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.
A good to-do list will shape your day and help you focus on the things that are most important to you. So how do you do it? Your tasks need to be concise and specific. You can't try to cram too much into one day. You also need to make more than one list.
With the right strategies, a to-do list can help you achieve larger goals. It's all about identifying those goals and breaking them into their component parts. When the parts are small enough, they can end up on your daily to-do list.
Here's what you need to know to make your to-do list work for you.
1. Choose the right app (or use paper).
The first step in making a better to-do list is deciding where to keep it—and there's nothing wrong with paper! If a paper list works for you, great. A simple spreadsheet or word processing document is fine, too.
That said, to-do apps have several advantages over paper:
- Apps have built-in reminders.
- Digital lists are easier to edit.
- You can't lose a digital list that's saved to the cloud.
- You can change how you view your tasks, such as by priority, by due date or alphabetically.
- They can be collaborative; you can assign tasks to other people and get notified when they complete them.
- You can choose a to-do list app with features that motivate you, whether it's a beautiful design or a gamified experience.
Which app is best? There are so many to-do list apps to choose from. You could lose an entire day exploring all the options. I've tested many of them, and the ones I recommend the most are Todoist, Any.do, Asana and Things.
Choose something that speaks to you. A few other options that are great in certain circumstances are Google Tasks for integrating with G Suite apps, Microsoft To Do if you use Microsoft Office or Windows 10, Habitica if you like gamification, and OmniFocus for those who add a lot of detail to their tasks. Trello is technically a kanban app, but it's a good choice if you're a highly visual person.
There are so many others. If none of these strikes your fancy, ask your friends what they use.
2. Make more than one list.
Very few people who are good to-dos lists have only one. All great to-do apps let you make multiple lists. Get started with a few that are easy and obvious, such as Work, Personal and Household.
You might also make a Someday list for things you'd like to do someday.
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.
What else do you need? A shopping list? A list of chores for kids? You can add new lists or rename them at any time.
3. Add new tasks as quickly as possible.
When a new task pops into your head, write it on your to-do list as quickly as possible. When you add tasks to your to-do list as soon as you think of them, it prevents you from dwelling on them. Once it's written down, you don't need to remember it anymore.
If your to-do app has some kind of keyboard shortcut for adding a new task, learn it. If your app has a mobile phone shortcut, set it up.
4. Assign due dates.
When a task has a due date, add it. Due dates help you prioritize.
Not every task needs a hard and fast due date, but sometimes it helps to add them in your app anyway. Assigning due dates is effective for two reasons.
First, most to-do apps let you see what's due "today," "tomorrow," and "this week," regardless of what list they're in (Personal, Work, etc.). So, you can see everything due "today" and get a sense of how the day will go, or take a moment to reschedule if you're feeling overwhelmed just looking at it all.
Second, by giving tasks due dates, 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 "today" to-do list and assessing whether it's reasonable. Then revise it.
If you have too many tasks scheduled for today and you know you won't get to them all, you're setting yourself up for failure.
6. Limit yourself to three and five tasks daily.
On average, I check off between three and five tasks per day. If I've inadvertently scheduled 12 tasks for the day, I know I won't get to them all, which means I have to re-prioritize and change some due dates. If I spot this potential problem before my day starts, I can adjust rather than feel stressed out by all those tasks that I would have liked to get done and didn't.
What is your daily task limit? It depends on what kinds of tasks you write down and how difficult they are to complete. Over time, if you track how many tasks you check off each day — the best to-do apps do it for you — you'll learn your maximum. Once you know your max, you can limit your daily assignments to a reasonable number.
The more you finish all your tasks for the day, the better you'll feel about your to-do lists overall. That positive feeling fuels a sense of productivity.
7. Put tasks in your to-do list, not goals and objectives.
What you write on your to-do list matters. Put tasks on your lists, rather than objectives and goals. To do that, you have 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.
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 might be "have a conversation in Hindi about my favorite movies."
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 for 30 minutes."
Tasks — not goals or objectives — are what belong on a to-do list.
8. Keep your goals and objectives separate.
In a perfect world, the tasks you get done each day will be in pursuit of your bigger goals. If not, why are you wasting your time doing them? You need to know what your goals are, but you don't need to write them on your to-do list.
Write down your goals and objectives somewhere else. If your to-do list has a notes section, put them there. If you keep a journal, you might write down your goals and revise them quarterly or annually. Refer to your goals from time to time, but don't let them distract you from the specific things you need to do today.
9. Look at your to-do list often.
An effective to-do list guides you throughout your day. Look at it at the beginning of the week to plan your time. Look at it at the beginning of the day to revise your plan for the day. Look at it after lunch so you know what else you need to focus on for the rest of the day.
When you feel lost in a task or need a break from it, look at your to-do list for something little 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 — as I think you should — 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 or stars you can add that let you highlight crucial tasks. 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.
The heart of productivity
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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