Advertising

Last Updated on October 28, 2021

15 Strategies for an Effective To-Do List

Advertising
15 Strategies for an Effective To-Do List

One of the age-old productivity techniques around is the classic and effective to-do list, and for good reason. It’s one of the most productive ways for you and everyone else to get anything done. Whether it’s a mental list or something that you are writing down, a to-do list is an essential productivity tool.

At the same time, it is one of the most confusing productivity tools around. Many people discredit this for various reasons and don’t believe that a to-do list is any good. But my argument is that maybe you and other people aren’t making an effective to-do list, so here we will go over how to get one done right.

Why Is a To-Do List Important?

Before jumping into strategies to make an effective to-do list, it’s worth knowing why you should bother making one. The first important point is that many people have been making to-do lists all wrong.

Two of the most common mistakes are:

  • People use lists as a measurement of whether they are productive or not.
  • They put too many items on the list.

It’s understandable why you or other people do this, though. A to-do list is a productivity tool, so it makes sense to pile on tasks. However, the brain doesn’t work that way. If you have a lot of tasks on your list, it feels like torture as the list never ends.

At first, it can feel nice that you always have something to do, but keep in mind that you only have so much time in a day. It’s important that you place more value in quality work rather than sheer quantity.

On that same note, if you are someone who has a tendency to seek validation, a to-do list can be tough. There will be days where you won’t get everything done due to life events. This creates unnecessary pressure and sends you into a stress whirlwind.

When you build an effective to-do list, the main goal of these lists is to provide clarity and focus. If you’ve been doing them wrong, you may have noticed that you are focusing in on a task on your to do list and getting it done.

This may be overshadowed by the multiple items on your list, but you are focusing on a task during a given time. You really see this in action when you consider having a shorter to-do list, though.

I understand that a to-do list isn’t for every single person, but this focus is helpful to people when starting out. You’re still not certain about your goals or the path that you want to take. You may also struggle to determine the next step to work towards.

A to-do list is a guide you can refer back to it whenever you need it. Furthermore, the techniques that I’ll be mentioning below will make to-do lists more effective for you.

15 Strategies for an Effective To-Do List

So what should be on a to-do list? What is the best to-do list system?

You’ll begin to see how powerful a to-do list is when you consider the various strategies you can incorporate in one. This is your to-do list, so pick from the strategies below to find what suits you. If you’re not certain, don’t be afraid to experiment and mishmash several combinations.

Advertising

Remember that the road to success is one with many branching paths, so the methods you use are your choice.

1. Break the List Into Two Parts

The first strategy is to break a list into two parts. These two parts are called dailies and to do’s.

Dailies are the everyday tasks that you want to develop more. For example, if you want to make a habit out of exercising in the morning, a daily task could be following a 15-minute workout routine or going for an hour-long walk.

Your to do’s are non-daily tasks that you need to be getting done at some point. Maybe you need to prepare a report at work or make a presentation. You can put that into your to do column.

This is an effective strategy because it saves all the clutter that most people gravitate towards. As mentioned before, people stuff their lists, and a lot of it is usually tasks they you would do anyway, like going grocery shopping or dropping the kids off at a friend’s place.

2. Put a Limit on Items

If you find breaking your list into two parts too much, I’ll suggest brevity to be a virtue when making these lists. You can set any number of items, but the key is that you do have a set limit in mind. Some people have no more than seven while others go as low as three. Do what makes you feel comfortable.

The idea behind this is to narrow in on the most important tasks that you need to accomplish that day. Of course, there are other things that you’ll be doing during the day, and that’s fine, but you want to prioritize the items that on your to do list before the day is done.

3. Use Checklists for Complex Tasks

If you’re already making narrow lists but are putting in tougher tasks, my suggestion is to break that task down. Whether it’s full-on steps you need to take or jotting down important details that need to be present is up to you.

Either way, this allows you to ensure that you’re getting everything done the proper way and that you’re not missing any key details or steps.

4. Tackle MITs First

MIT is the “most important task.” Another way to look at this is to tackle the largest and most intimidating task first[1]. Why you want to do this goes back to how our brain works.

You may feel compelled to do the easier tasks first before getting to the bigger task, but the problem is that these tasks—even the easy ones—drain your energy. Furthermore, if you have a really big task to complete, chances are that’s going to be on your mind over the course of the day. That means you’re spending more energy just thinking about it.

All of that wouldn’t be a problem if that big intimidating task was dealt with first thing in the morning.

5. Create a “Done” List

Another interesting approach to consider is to have a “done” list. This is a list of the tasks that you’ve completed from your to-do list. Many people find it satisfying to merely cross an item off their list and be done with it, but depending on what you’re putting on those lists, a done list could be inspiring.

Advertising

Imagine if you are someone who places above-average difficult tasks on your to-do lists, activities that require an hour or two to complete properly. This can inspire you to do more if, after a day of working, you notice just how much you accomplished over the course of the day via this list.

6. Make Your List Easy to Spot

From colorful paper to posting it in an obvious spot, you want your list to be in a place where you can spot it easily. Mind you, you don’t need to have this list in front of you all the time as it could create unnecessary stress. But setting it to one side is a nice idea—a glance to the side and you know exactly what needs to get done.

7. Add Gaming Elements to It

If pen and paper isn’t your thing when making to-do lists, there are several apps that can guide you along as well. The beauty of to -do list apps is that there is more room for creativity, and some of the developers incorporate games into them.

For example, Todoist has an achievement system where individuals earn badges as they complete more tasks. There’s also Bounty Tasker, which makes you feel like your tasks are side quests in a video game.

8. Give Yourself Deadlines

Work expands to fill time allotted.

It’s an old philosophy that still rings true with how we are productive. For example, say you’re assigned to write a report, and you’re given a week to do it. You’ll likely work on it steadily throughout the week. Or if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll put it off until the night before and finish it.

But what if you’re given that same task and only allotted an hour to complete it? You’ll likely get the report done, but you’ll prioritize the main, important points and highlight those rather than fill it with unnecessary fluff.

The whole point of this is that with your goals and the items on your to-do list, you want to have deadlines. When it comes to to-do lists, my suggestion is to give yourself a day to complete the tasks there. This is enough pressure and incentive for you to work hard on them.

9. Add Tasks When They’re Fresh

Another strategy is to assign yourself tasks even when you are working on something else. Keep in mind it’s not something you have to do right now, but this can help with people who are struggling to think about what to focus on next.

This is along the same lines as when you hear something interesting and you write it down. It’s a wise thing to do as it saves you the bother of having to dwell on that idea rather than focusing on the task at hand. It also saves you from having to recall what the task is if you’re the type to write up the next day’s to-do list at the end of the day.

10. Be Comfortable With Revising Your To-Do List

Depending on your overall mindset, another good strategy is to look at your to-do list and make changes to it. If you’re practicing the previous strategy, there may be a possibility that your to-do list is getting lengthy and you’re setting unrealistic expectations that you can finish it all.

By giving yourself the opportunity to revise your to-do list, your allowing yourself to spread out your tasks rather than have them clumped up. This helps your mindset as you’re not overwhelmed by the list.

11. Write Tasks, Not Goals

You should have separate lists for your tasks and your goals. The idea is to not put goals on your task list at all.

Advertising

While tasks can help you lead to your goals, goals are larger desires and not something that you can achieve over the course of the day. For example, “learn to speak French” is a goal; however, you can break that into a task by saying “read French content for 15 minutes” or “watch a movie in French.”

This also extends to objectives, too. You can see these as milestones. Going back to the example of speaking French, an objective can be, “discuss my favorite foods with someone in French.” It’s the desired outcome that you’re looking for from your practice.

12. Keep To-Do Lists Brief

Here, brief means scannable in that you can quickly look over at the list and know what needs to get done. How you can do this is by focusing on the keywords of specific tasks and not dragging them out. For example, say your garage is a mess and you want to clean it up. Instead of writing a lengthy sentence, keep it short and write something like “clean garage for 30 min.” or simply “clean garage.”

With this strategy, you’re spending less time writing the task down when making the to-do list. Furthermore, you’re relying on trigger words to get your mind to recall specific details for that task.

13. Have Multiple Lists

As mentioned above, it’s a good idea to have separate lists for various things, like having a separate list for goals, objectives, daily tasks, and to-do’s. Another way you can look at it is to have a system where you are consulting from three lists.

These lists are:

A Master List

This is where any of your long-term goals are, things like moving to a new house, getting out of debt, or building a business. These are things that will take a year or more to accomplish.

A Weekly Project List

These are things that you want to accomplish by the end of the week. These are things that will move the needle slowly towards some of the items on your master list. From the previous example, these could be doing research on getting a business loan, house hunting, or setting up a savings account.

A High-Impact List

Lastly, these are tasks that need to be accomplished today. Whether they are related to the previous two lists or not doesn’t matter. This is where high priority tasks are placed. Examples can be calling specific people or working on a project or a report that’s due soon.

By having these lists in place, you’ll be referring often to the weekly project list and the high-impact list and determining whether a weekly task should be moved to that list.

Advertising

As you do that, you’ll begin to notice how much your daily life has an impact on those goals that are written on that master list. That can be inspiring since what you are doing is actively bringing you closer to your goals.

14. Don’t Ramp up Difficulty Until You’re Ready

Some of the strategies mentioned can seem easy on the surface, but they require a lot of mental fortitude. Motivation is an unusual thing, and our brains are wired to process a certain way. If you’re looking for genuine change and something that sticks, the best principle is to keep things simple and easy at first.

It may be a drag, but you don’t often realize how those baby steps can play a crucial role in you being able to start running and chasing your dreams. Don’t be ashamed if you have to start off with simple tasks for yourself. Even going back to daily tasks that you do anyway like showering, doing the laundry or shopping for food is a good way to start.

Putting those items on the list at first makes you feel like you’ve had a productive day. From there, you can challenge yourself with more difficult tasks. Incorporate an exercise routine or spend a half-hour on a task that means something to you.

The idea is to ease yourself into a routine so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

15. Measure Your Time

The last strategy that can help you is to measure your time. How long does it take you to finish a specific task? You don’t need to go for specifics, but make a point of timing yourself over the course of a week and get the average time spent on that task.

Why is this important? This information can be broken down in two ways.

The first way is to use it as a marker to boost efficiency. Depending on the task, you can find new ways to achieve the same results in a shorter time.

It also allows you to know what you can do in a given day. If you know that it takes you an hour or so to go through your entire morning routine, you’ll be more conscious about how you move through that routine.

Furthermore, if you know what tasks you’ll be doing the next day, you can better manage your time since you know roughly how much time it’ll take to get everything done.

Final Thoughts

Building an effective to-do list is not as easy as it seems.

There are all kinds of unique strategies to try out, some more challenging that others. However, if you are motivated to use this productivity tool to make your life easier, then it will get easier.

All that you need to do is keep putting effort and experiment and reevaluate when necessary. So get started with your to-do lists today.

Advertising

More Tips on Using an Effective To-Do List

Featured photo credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

How to Use the Prioritization Matrix When Every Task is #1 setting smart goals How To Set SMART Goals That You Will Accomplish Confused About Life? Try These 4 Things to Find Clarity do what you love How to Do What You Love and Love What You Do to Achieve More How to Have a Fresh Start Without Giving Up a Lot in life

Trending in Focus

1 10 Reasons Why You Have Trouble Concentrating (and Their Solutions) 2 How to Use the Prioritization Matrix When Every Task is #1 3 How to Become Indistractable: 4 Powerful Tactics to Help You Focus 4 How to Plan Your Day for a Healthy And Productive Life 5 How To Create A Daily Schedule To Organize Your Day

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on December 2, 2021

10 Reasons Why You Have Trouble Concentrating (and Their Solutions)

Advertising
10 Reasons Why You Have Trouble Concentrating (and Their Solutions)

What were you doing when this article caught your eye? Chances are, you were having trouble concentrating on another project.

Even before COVID-19, balancing your work, family, and social life made concentrating a challenge. These days, it can seem downright impossible.

Don’t let a little bad news—or good fun—break your focus. Here is a simple guide and tips to help you concentrate better.

Signs of Trouble Concentrating

Signs and symptoms of not concentrating vary from person to person. However, what we can experience are:

  • Have a struggling working memory. You don’t know what occurred not that long ago;
  • Trouble sitting still;
  • Not being able to think clearly;
  • You frequently lose things or can’t remember where things were placed;
  • Have an inability to make decisions or perform complicated tasks;
  • Unable to focus
  • Lacking physical or mental energy
  • Constantly and consistently making mistakes even if you don’t mean to.

When it comes to difficulty concentrating, you may notice these symptoms occur at various points for people. Some people need to be in certain settings for these symptoms to happen. For others, it can be during a certain time of day.

10 Most Common Causes of Trouble Concentrating

Here’re 12 most common reasons why you have trouble concentration, and the fixes for each of them.

1. Digital Distractions

Right now, do a little experiment. Pull up your browser history, hit Ctrl+H, and see where you’ve been all day. Frightening, right?

You jumped in and out of email. You bounced from social media to digital publication and back again. Oh, and look at those half-dozen retail sites you scrolled through looking for a new pair of shoes.

Then, there’s your smartphone. Every few seconds, you get a new notification from Twitter, Instagram, or CNN. Each time, your eyes dart from your computer screen to your phone. You’d hate to miss something, right?

The Fix: Schedule Your Day

While a little flexibility is important, you should set aside a period of time for tasks you know you’ll need to complete.

Schedule time to:

  • Read and respond to work emails
  • Make headway on your top two or three work projects
  • Engage in professional development
  • Do household chores
  • Help the kids with homework
  • Run that Zoom tutorial with your partner again

Leave short gaps in between as buffer times in case something goes over the intended time. Everyone needs to unwind with a good distraction now and again.

The key is controlling when you do so, rather than letting it control you.

2. Daydreams and Memories

Remember that little café where your spouse proposed to you 15 years ago? Wouldn’t your dining room look great with the same little tables and subway tile on the floor?

Everyone loses themselves in daydreams and memories sometimes. Your mind wanders to the future or the past because those places are more pleasant than what you’re handling at that time. This causes you to have trouble concentrating on what you need to focus on.

Advertising

Nonetheless, you have a deadline to meet, so how can you keep yourself focused when you have trouble concentrating?

The Fix: Stay in the Present

Daydreaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagination can provide a spark of creative genius or visualization of what you want in life. You just need to do it when it makes sense, not when you should be focusing on work.

Stay in the present by keeping your daily to-do list on your desk. When your mind starts to drift, pull yourself back to what’s right in front of you. Ground yourself by focusing on something real, like your breath, before turning your attention back to the task at hand.

With that said, make time to let your mind wander on occasion. Allow yourself the luxury of dreaming when it’s not pulling you away from something you need to get done.

3. Headaches

While you might be able to power through mild ones, a splitting migraine can destroy any hope you have of concentrating for a period of time.

Headaches and migraines are caused by a wide range of issues, including stress, sleep deprivation, diet, eyestrain, and medications[1]. Throw a global pandemic on top, and it’s no wonder your head is pounding.

The Fix: Use Your Head

Like that bottle of hand sanitizer, keep your headache and migraine medications on hand at all times. If getting to the pharmacy is a challenge these days, migraine services like Nurx can diagnose you and deliver medication to your door.

If your headache isn’t severe, try a medication-free approach. Some people find relief simply from drinking water, applying a cold compress, or inhaling essential oils.

4. Racing Thoughts

When is that project due? I’ve got to get something for Jane’s baby shower. I’m almost out of shampoo. I need those audit figures. What do I make for dinner tonight?

Does that scenario sound familiar? When you get busy, you suddenly remember five other items that you need to do or think about.

All of this can be so distracting that you’re unable to keep up and have difficulty concentrating.

The Fix: Meditate and Be Mindful

If you’re like most people, your mind is lost in thought 47% of the time, causing concentration problems. [2]

Meditation is a great way to clear the clutter, restore cognitive functioning, and focus on the present.

The good news is that meditating is easy.

Simply sit somewhere comfortable, take off your shoes, and set a timer for ten minutes. Then, just focus on your breathing.

Advertising

Don’t try to control it; simply notice your inhales and exhales, and let thoughts pass unjudged.

Mindfulness meditation, described above, is just one type. Mantra and movement meditations are also popular. Figure out what works for you, and keep those racing thoughts at bay.

5. Unresolved Issues and Arguments

Life is messy, and if you’re like me, one of the greatest concentration killers is unresolved disputes and arguments.

Maybe you argued with your partner last night. Perhaps you both went to bed angry, and it’s been bothering you all morning.

Or maybe you’re fed up with a co-worker who always talks louder than is necessary because they want everyone to hear about their latest date.

Your anger and annoyance might be well placed, but it doesn’t help to linger on these things. Your brain cells are better used for something else.

The Fix: Get Some Closure

Instead of leaving an argument up in the air, try to solve it. Stick to the point, stay calm, listen, and bring the disagreement to some sort of resolution.

If a co-worker does something to irritate you enough to interfere with your ability to concentrate, pull them aside and tell them. Be rational—not angry—and try to understand what might motivate their actions.

Otherwise, nothing is going to change, including the fact that you’re having difficulty concentrating.

6. Lack of Sleep

Sleep deprivation isn’t just a health issue. It also hinders your ability to concentrate during waking hours.

There are medical reasons for poor sleep too. Diabetes, sleep apnea, respiratory issues, cardiovascular disease, generalized anxiety disorder and neurological disorders.

For those, you need to seek medical advice and treatment.

But for most people, poor sleep is the result of mental health struggles and anxiety about all kinds of things. Finances, kids, parents, or maybe that job change you’ve been considering.

You have a lot on your mind, and this causes you to have trouble concentrating.

The Fix: Have Some Sweet Dreams

Losing as few as 16 minutes of sleep can throw you off your game the next day. Getting to sleep might be as easy as changing your mattress or your pillow, but the bigger culprit is your routine. Key steps include to help restore cognitive functioning are:

Advertising

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including on weekends.
  • Control your exposure to light at night, including smartphones and computer screens. Use that time to confront those weighty things on your mind by making a list of concerns or updating your to-do list.
  • Avoid overeating. Large meals close to bed can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine. Both substances interrupt your natural sleep cycle.
  • When you do lie down, turn off the lights and close your eyes. Take some deep breaths, and drift into dreamland.

7. Lack of Exercise

Exercise lands at the bottom of the to-do list for many people. When they run out of time, they skip it. But they pay the price later in the form of their concentration.

Even moderate, regular physical activity benefits your physical health, improves your sleep, lessens anxiety, and increases mental acuity.

If you aren’t making time for exercise during the day, you’re hurting your ability to stay focused.

The Fix: Get Moving

Not everyone is an athlete, and not everyone wants to work out under the scrutiny of their fellow gym-goers. And that’s okay.

At the end of the day, what matters is sustainability.

Rather than launch into that soon-to-fail New Year’s resolution approach to exercise, start with literal small steps, like walking the dog or taking the stairs.

If it only takes you five minutes to eat that protein bar at your desk, use the rest of your lunch break to take a walk. Even if it’s around the block, you’ll come back feeling refreshed.

8. Boredom

If you’re bored with a work project, it’s easy to fall victim to even the smallest distraction. The same can happen when not enjoying what you’re doing too.

Boredom is the starting point that can spiral out of control easily. It leads to a lack of motivation, which leads to fatigue, which leads to scrolling through your Facebook feed for hours, killing your ability to focus.

Depression and boredom are tightly linked too so boredom could be a sign of something deeper.

The Fix: Get a Fresh Perspective

The pandemic has put a stranglehold on our social lives. Despite the restrictions on seeing other people and going out in public, you need to find a way to put the “social” back in your life.

Work-life balance is important, especially under these circumstances.

Even if you’re not comfortable with eating at a restaurant or visiting Grandma, there are things you can do. Zoom and Facetime are good options, but you might also think about having a couple of friends over on your patio while maintaining social distance.

Keep it short so no one even has to use your bathroom.

And about that boring work project? Tweak your attitude by thinking about how it will benefit your client.

Advertising

Find a way to make it fun, perhaps by discussing it with colleagues who make you laugh. You can check out more ways to make boring work interesting in the following video:

If all else fails, just muscle through it. Mark it off your list, and move on to something more engaging.

9. Excess Stress

The pandemic, politics, the economy, what’s happening in the news, your work, and more can be big points of stress. In some cases they are manageable.

But there are some days where you can’t help but worry and get stressed out about these things.

I understand that, however, it’s also a lifestyle choice for you to be getting stressed out about those things.

The Fix: Destressing

Stressing out over those things will not only cause a decrease in cognitive functioning and concentration but is also the starting point for other problems listed in this post.

To solve this, learning to destress in various ways will help out a lot. These methods include:

  • Making it a rule to stress out about things you can control rather than worry about what you can’t control.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation
  • Give yourself a break
  • Talk to other people about your worries
  • Avoid using drugs and alcohol and instead, find some other way to unwind

10. Lack Of Nutrients Or Hunger

Finally, the last reason you can’t concentrate is maybe you’re not getting the right nutrients or not eating enough, to begin with.

Lack of nutrition is very common since people can get distracted by other things that they forget to eat. That or they only grab small snacks and aren’t getting the nutrients they need.

The Fix: Eat Better And Healthier

It’s vital that you’re eating properly and that you’re getting the right nutrients in your body. Vitamins like D3 and B12 help out a lot and can be taken as supplements.

In terms of actual foods, blueberries, green tea, avocadoes, fish, water, dark chocolate, flax seeds, and nuts are all proven to help with focus and concentration.

Beyond that, ensure you are eating enough at each meal and that you are eating consistently over the course of the day.

Though it’s not very common, you may also have trouble concentrating due to chronic conditions. Difficulty concentrating is a side effect of:

When Should You Seek Help?

Looking for help should be a priority if you:

  • Haven’t been diagnosed with any of the cognitive functioning disorders mentioned above and you’ve tried several of those methods mentioned above to fix difficulty concentrating;
  • Experienced loss of consciousness, severe chest pains, severe headaches, sudden and unexplained working memory loss;
  • Unusual feelings of tiredness;
  • Trouble sleeping;
  • Or seeing a decline in performance in work or school.

The Bottom Line

Concentration requires a lot of energy, motivation, and focus. That’s why most people have trouble concentrating. When there are all sorts of sounds, lights, and people competing for your attention, that combination can be elusive.

Advertising

Do your best to remove distractions, clear your mind, and take care of yourself. Those work projects will practically check themselves off once you get into a groove.

More to Help You Concentrate

Featured photo credit: Rabie Madaci via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Health Publishing: Headache: When to worry, what to do
[2] Columbia University: How Meditation Can Help You Focus
[3] Mayo Clinic: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Read Next