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How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

How to Get More From Your Task List with Layout Hacks

    If you’ve read my articles for any length of time, you know I’m an advocate of using paper task lists for your day-to-day task management needs. On a larger scale, such as for ubiquitous capture and weekly planning, I rely on technology, but I then use that large-scale system to form a daily task list on paper. This keeps me focused and burning through the tasks in rapid succession.

    However, there was a time when I was using paper task lists and receiving no benefit at all from it. In fact, I may have been getting even less done than when I relied on the computer to manage my daily tasks.

    At that point in time, my lists were long, written in small print to fit everything on one page. And I don’t know how paper size is measured in the United States, but I’m talking about an A4 sheet of paper.

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    No wonder I got nothing done. I had days and days worth of tasks on one page. There was no direction of attention nor anything to assist in focusing on only that day’s tasks. Just a blob of everything I needed to do.

    If your task list looks like this, like most people’s do, you’re not really writing up task lists. These are more like a mind sweep or capture, because you’ve captured everything you need to do in one place, but haven’t yet processed it in the various appropriate ways to create lists that actually help you in getting stuff done.

    So, here are the rules that I implemented to take that sheet of paper that sucked me dry of motivation and focus and turn it into something that helps you get stuff done.

    It’s Probably Too Big

    If you’ve gone and taken a piece of paper out of your printer or you’ve used a notebook that’s fairly large (say, pages the size of a standard letter), your piece of paper is too big. You need to be limited to make good decisions. You need something about a quarter of that size. A small notebook is perfect for the job.

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    When you’ve got a big piece of paper, you’re tempted to fill it up. That’s really where the root problem lies with many people and their inability to craft effective task lists: they see a space, and they want to fill it up. Sure, it’s instinctual. Humans, for some reason or another, want to fill every space and niche and vacuum they can find. Look at the Internet – it’s one of the biggest spaces filled with junk for the sake of filling it.

    The first step is to restrict yourself. This gives you limited space and scope to work with, which means you immediately put more thought and consideration into the development of your list. You think things through and only list the things that need to be done.

    One Day at a Time

    Often, people will try and make one task list that covers several days, or worse, just create a task list that attempts to cover everything, no matter what the timeframe for it is. You only want to cover one day.

    You’ve got software like Things to help you capture and sort tasks on a larger scale, but the whole point of having a small sheet of paper in front of you, in tangible form, is to help you focus on a daily basis. You need to refine your list to cover only the necessities of each day, the most important tasks that are going to move your projects further in real ways. These are high-yield tasks for the day, which are usually comprised of many smaller, seemingly low-yield, tasks.

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    Never try to squeeze your week into one list. Heck, don’t even try for two days. You’re going to blow it. The task list will serve you best when you use it as a tool to keep you highly focused for one day at a time, and by including tasks for subsequent days, you lose the advantage of keeping highly focused. You might be tempted to jump to that more interesting task three days down the track!

    Prioritize Every List

    Even with less space and less timeframe going into each task list, you will probably still have quite a few tasks to juggle and will need to identify the most important tasks for the day so you can tackle them first, or otherwise plan your day so that they get done. Of course, you want to get everything on that list done and you shouldn’t include more than you can handle if you want to have any hope of feeling motivated when the time to write your next list comes around. But prioritizing helps you focus further and know which tasks can be postponed (if necessary) to complete others.

    If you don’t prioritize, you risk spending all day on a project that, it turns out, was far less urgent than the task just underneath it on the list.

    The best way I’ve found to do this is to choose three tasks and three tasks alone and place a star or asterisk next to them, just to the left (keep a margin when you start jotting your list down so that you don’t find yourself cramming your asterisks into corners!).

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    Do not exceed three asterisks. It totally defeats the purpose. You just want to know your three, most urgent, most high-yield tasks for that day.

    And if you can manage to get under three asterisks, even better. You’ve got great focus!

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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