Oh, the great To-Do List Debate! The productivity world loves arguing over this topic.

Are to-do lists the only way to keep yourself on task, or an unrealistic goal that just stresses you out and make you feel bad about all the things you never get to? Should you keep a short list of the most essential items, or a massive running list of every task you’ll ever need to remember?

I won’t try to jump into this debate, because the truth is that different things work for different people. For me, I’ve found what works best is something known as a “rolling” to-do list. So I’d like to share this technique with you — not to convince you that it’s the only way to go, but to give you another option you may find works well for you, too.

How It Works

If you always have multiple projects percolating at once, a rolling to-do list can be a great way to break down all the steps and deadlines and keep you on schedule without overwhelming you. Here’s how it works:

Start with a blank document (digital, not paper). Rolling lists don’t work well on traditional calendars or notepads because there’s just too much reordering and rearranging. You need something you can easily cut and paste on as your priorities shift and new items come up.

Break your projects up into steps. Say one of your to-dos this month is to finish the Smith report. That task is made up of many smaller components: gathering research, compiling and organizing data, drafting the report, circulating it to coworkers for feedback. Write out each component as a separate item on your list, in the order you’ll need to-do them.

Give those steps deadlines. Let’s say the Smith report is due in 2 weeks. Next to each component of the project, put down an estimated deadline for when you’d need to complete that item in order to keep things on schedule. This isn’t a hard and fast deadline, just a reference point to keep you from falling behind and to help you rank the item in the right spot on your list.

Prioritize your items. Let’s say you’ve got five action items with deadlines this week. Decide which are the most crucial and put those first. If Mr. Smith is your biggest, most VIP client, then action items related to his report will probably go before any others. Whatever’s at the top of your list should always be the items you absolutely must get done, even if the rest get rolled over to tomorrow.

Tackle the items in order. No skipping ahead if you don’t particularly feel like doing item no. 1 right now. The whole point of ranking your items was to make sure the most important things get done first. So, buck up and do whatever’s on the top of your list.

Reevaluate and reorder. Your list will always be evolving. Every morning, examine your tasks to make sure they’re still in the right order. Maybe another project has suddenly been upgraded to urgent status; bump its tasks up on the list. Maybe you’ve gotten some new to-dos, so you need to figure out where to fit them in. The key to keeping a rolling to-do list effective is to keep it rolling.

Why It Helps

It’s manageable. Rather than a list of big, nebulous projects that’s paralyzing to look at, a rolling list breaks things down into small, actionable items you can work on right now. You’re always chipping away at a piece of one project or another, making progress without getting overwhelmed.

It’s flexible. Life happens, and traditional to-do lists don’t accommodate that very well: if today’s to-dos don’t get to-done, they stay at the top of the list, while more things keep getting to the bottom, leaving you with twice as much work and twice as much stress. In comparison, a rolling list allows you to juggle things around and make space for the unexpected, restructuring your priorities as projects change and deadlines shift.

If traditional lists haven’t worked for you, try giving the rolling list a trial run. You may find it’s just what you need to keep your changing priorities in order (and your sanity intact).

(Photo credit: Thoughtful Businesswoman via Shutterstock)

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