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15 Tips to Make Today the Day You Finish Your To-Do List

15 Tips to Make Today the Day You Finish Your To-Do List
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You’ve seen it before. Every checkmark only leaves two more unfinished tasks. Your to-do list has become an living organism, spawning more and more work while leaving you less and less time to finish. Is it possible to stop your to-do list, or will it just become an unstoppable blob of extra work?

Your best weapon against the rising tide of to-do is dedicating a day to destroying that list. Instead of wandering around, attacking various projects before putting them down, you go for the kill. Set up a massive to-do list and wipe it clean.

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Few things are more satisfying than after a day of ending your to-do list. Here are a few tips to get you started:

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  • Clear your schedule. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you give yourself a large chunk of time. A to-do ending day can’t be filled with all the regular errands of your life. The entire day needs to be focused on killing that list, so pick a day where you can have complete control over your time.
  • Wake up early. Building momentum is critical. Even if waking up at 5 am isn’t a usual event for you, it can be helpful here. Which do you think will give you the right start: dragging yourself out of bed at ten o’clock, or forcing yourself to start moving at six?
  • Collect your to-do list. If you have tasks and projects scattered over different parts of your life, you need to collect them into one list. One list detailing everything you want to have accomplished, on one piece of paper you can hold in front of you.
  • Know the end. What does being finished look like? Every task should have a clear goal and purpose beyond just getting done. You can spend an entire day attacking your to-do list and accomplishing nothing if you aren’t clear on the final picture.
  • Put hard tasks first. Pick your biggest and most difficult tasks and start on them first. Putting off the hard work is a sure sign it won’t get done. By putting the difficult tasks first, you also build a momentum that allows you to focus easily.
  • Isolate yourself. Lock yourself in a room, unplug your phone and internet if you have to. Anything to ensure that interruptions won’t break your focus. A few hours of complete focus can accomplish what would take several days of multitasking.
  • Set your rest breaks. Working continuously for several hours can be difficult to do with mentally straining work, especially if you aren’t used to it. My suggestion is to set short, but meaningful breaks in advance so you won’t be tempted to procrastinate.
  • Match breaks with tasks, not time. Your breaks should match up with the large to-do chunks on your list, not at a specific time. If you plan to finish a report you expect to take ninety minutes, finish it in one chunk. Taking a break while working on a major task will only break your flow.
  • Be patient when accelerating. It can take time to build up speed. When I write an article, it can take me up to fifteen minutes to get a clear idea on what I want to write. During this build-up time, the temptation is to quit or move on to something easier. Avoid that temptation and be patient.
  • Give yourself meaningful rewards. If you finish your to-do list, take a break. Go out and have fun, watch a television show, meet up with friends or just stare blankly at a wall. Feeling the urge to be completely productive 24/7 is an easy way to ensure you never do.
  • Does it need to be done? Cross off any items that lack long-term importance. Purify your to-do list so it only contains tasks that will be significant months and years from now. If your to-do list doesn’t seem important, it probably isn’t.
  • Energize your diet. Engineer your food and exercise routine to give you the energy you need throughout the day. Eat lighter foods and avoid simple carbohydrates (which spike your blood glucose and then drop it). Drink plenty of water and eat smaller meals more frequently. Your goal is to create a diet that will keep your fuel levels even throughout the day.
  • To exercise or not to exercise? Exercise is definitely a good idea. But whether you should bother heading to the gym on an intense project attacking day depends. I would say that a quick run can give you enough added energy to make up for the time loss. But if your exercise is long and prescheduled, you might want to leave it out to focus completely on your to-do list.
  • Collect resources ahead of time. The night before you plan your epic battle against your to-do, prepare. Make sure you have all the right tools, information and resources to get the job done. Nothing feels worse than a half-finished list because you needed to wait on information from a third party.
  • Chunk, don’t spread. Don’t spread tasks over all your waking hours like butter on toast. Intensity trumps time-management. Get as much done as possible and give yourself large chunks for both work and play. Spreading yourself too thin results in only a half-effort.

A half-day is often enough. The surprising thing about creating a to-do list day is, that if you do it right, it takes far less time than you expected. I’m usually impressed that I can accomplish my entire list by the late afternoon when I follow these suggestions.

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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