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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.

    Mastering 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 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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