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Back to Basics: Your Task List

Back to Basics: Your Task List

Todo List

    Everyone makes a task list (or “todo list”) at least now and again. Usually, we wait until we’re overwhelmed with stuff to do, and then we’ll sit down and list everything we need to get done in the next day or two. Then, one by one, we go through the items on our list, do them, and cross them off.

    We do this because it feels better when we do. One minute, you’re at wit’s end, your attention divided 60 different ways, with no idea what to do next, and the next minute you’re in control, with everything neatly plotted: do this, then do that, then do this other thing. And, eventually, we cross the last item off and throw the list out.

    Until the next time we’re overwhelmed.

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    We make todo lists when we’re under pressure because they work. Imagine how much better they’d work – and how much more rarely we’d reach that “freaking out” stage – if we simply integrated the list-making into our day-to-day routines.

    Your brain is for doing

    Todo lists are important because every unfinished task you’ve made a commitment to causes stress. What’s more, your brain knows its own limits, so as you add more and more unfinished tasks, your brain starts thinking that some of them aren’t going to get finished – causing even more stress.

    That’s why it feels so good to write that task list – your brain lets out a sigh of relief, knowing that now, at least, it doesn’t have to try to keep track of all that stuff. Your brain doesn’t want to be remembering all the things you haven’t done. It wants to be doing them, so it can feel good about itself. The neurology of all this is a bit more complicated, but that’s the basic idea.

    Of Paper and Processors

    Your todo list doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A pocket notebook, a 3×5 index card, any of about a hundred computerized task lists whether online or off. I use a two-part system.

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    I have a section of the same notebook I use for capture that I use to list tasks; it’s marked with a Post-it Tab Divider. I use this as a kind of “task inbox” – what I don’t get done right away gets transferred into an online task manager called Toodledo. I use a computerized one because a) my list is usually longer than a page, and I don’t like having to flip back and forth and sort through finished tasks and unfinished ones to find the one I’m supposed to be doing next, and b) I can sort them by due date instead of by when I thought of it, as well as by project. And, I suppose, c) it’s a lot neater than my handwritten lists.

    It’s helpful to write not just the task but the reason for the task, to give you a pointer to what’s next after you’ve finished any particular task. I use a formula like this:

    • [Action verb][task] for [project or goal]

    For example:

    • Call Caroline at 555-xxxx to transfer insurance into my name (for car registration)
    • Write “Back to Basics” post for Lifehack
    • Grade papers for WMST 113.210 by Wednesday

    Note that I put in all the information I need (or as much as I have available) to complete the task. I don’t want to give myself an excuse not to do it, because I have to go find the phone number or I can’t remember which class folder I need to get. On the first one, I put “for car registration” so I’ll remember when I’m done transferring the insurance that I need to schedule a visit to the DMV.

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    Keep it with you

    Whatever format you decide to keep it in, make sure you have access to your list at all times. I use an online system because a) I’m rarely far from a computer, and b) I carry an Internet-enabled smartphone with me at all times. If that weren’t the case, I’d use a paper-only system.

    It’s crucial to have your list available under any circumstance. For one thing, you never know when you might have a few minutes to work on a couple of tasks; if you don’t have your list, you might waste those opportunities. Second, you never know when you might have to add something to the list.

    I keep Toodledo open in my browser at all times when I’m working at the computer; as I process my inboxes, I can easily switch windows and add tasks directly. If you use paper, it’s even easier; lay your notebook in front of you on your desk and add to it as needed. Make a habit of this, so you never have to wait until later to add a todo item – that defeats the purpose!

    What about context?

    If you’re a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you might be thinking “but what about contexts?” To be honest, I don’t use them, but many people do. The idea is, you keep not just one list but a set of lists, one for each “context” in which you regularly do tasks (or, using a computerized list, you add tags to each list item noting the context it belongs to).

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    A context is a place or situation. For instance, you have tasks you do “at home” and tasks you do “at the office” and tasks you do “on the phone” and tasks you do “out and about”. So you have a list of tasks you do on the phone; whenever you have a few minutes and your phone is handy, you can take a look at your “@phone” list and see if there’s a call you could make. When you’re at home, you can look only at the items on your “@home” list. This way, you’re not constantly searching through tasks that you can’t do right now; you only ever look at tasks you can do right this minute.

    Like I said, I don’t use contexts. I work at home, so all my contexts pretty much overlap. But for people who have clearly defined environments they move through over the course of the day, contexts can be a big help.

    Your lists

    What about you? How do you manage your lists? What works for you – and what have you tried that hasn’t worked? Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2020

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

    You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. A rut can manifest as a productivity vacuum and be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. Is it possible to learn how to get out of a rut?

    Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, or a student, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

    1. Work on Small Tasks

    When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks that have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

    Whenever I finish doing that, I generate positive momentum, which I bring forward to my work.

    If you have a large long-term goal you can’t wait to get started on, break it down into smaller objectives first. This will help each piece feel manageable and help you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal.

    You can learn more about goals vs objectives here.

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    2. Take a Break From Your Work Desk

    When you want to learn how to get out of a rut, get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the bathroom, walk around the office, or go out and get a snack. According to research, your productivity is best when you work for 50 minutes to an hour and then take a 15-20 minute break[1].

    Your mind may be too bogged down and will need some airing. By walking away from your computer, you may create extra space for new ideas that were hiding behind high stress levels.

    3. Upgrade Yourself

    Take the down time to upgrade your knowledge and skills. Go to a seminar, read up on a subject of interest, or start learning a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

    The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college[2]. How’s that for inspiration?

    4. Talk to a Friend

    Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while. Relying on a support system is a great way to work on self-care when you’re learning how to get out of a rut.

    Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

    5. Forget About Trying to Be Perfect

    If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism can lead you to fear failure, which can ultimate hinder you even more if you’re trying to find motivation to work on something new.

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    If you allow your perfectionism to fade, soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come, and then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

    Learn more about How Not to Let Perfectionism Secretly Screw You Up.

    6. Paint a Vision to Work Towards

    If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

    Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the ultimate goal or vision you have for your life?

    Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action. You can use the power of visualization or even create a vision board if you like to have something to physically remind you of your goals.

    7. Read a Book (or Blog)

    The things we read are like food for our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great material.

    Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. You can also stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs and follow writers who inspire and motivate you. Find something that interests you and start reading.

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    8. Have a Quick Nap

    If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep[3].

    Try a nap if you want to get out of a rut

      One Harvard study found that “whether they took long naps or short naps, participants showed significant improvement on three of the four tests in the study’s cognitive-assessment battery”[4].

      9. Remember Why You Are Doing This

      Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

      What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall your inspiration, and perhaps even journal about it to make it feel more tangible.

      10. Find Some Competition

      When we are learning how to get out of a rut, there’s nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

      Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, and networking conventions can all inspire you to get a move on. However, don’t let this throw you back into your perfectionist tendencies or low self-esteem.

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      11. Go Exercise

      Since you are not making headway at work, you might as well spend the time getting into shape and increasing dopamine levels. Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, or whatever type of exercise helps you start to feel better.

      As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

      If you need ideas for a quick workout, check out the video below:

      12. Take a Few Vacation Days

      If you are stuck in a rut, it’s usually a sign that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

      Beyond the quick tips above, arrange one or two days to take off from work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax, do your favorite activities, and spend time with family members. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

      Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest.

      More Tips to Help You Get out of a Rut

      Featured photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani via unsplash.com

      Reference

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