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How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

Do your days seem to be crazy busy and your to-do list filled up with an endless supply of tasks? Is your calendar full and your work day a non-stop rush from one thing to another?

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    If so, you may have too much on your plate. It’s time to step back, take a few minutes, and pare down that to-do list to just the bare essentials.

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    Imagine, for a moment, that you have only a few things on your list for today. Imagine the peace that comes from that simple little fact. Now imagine your workday, a day of simplicity, of focus, of powerful accomplishments. Imagine that instead of doing 10 little things that don’t matter much, you do one thing that will really have an impact on your business, on who you are, on your future.

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    Now make it happen. It’s possible, this workday of peace, this Zen-like productivity. But it will take focus and energy, and a little bit of hard-headedness. Here’s a guide for doing that.

    • Focus on your goals. To know what is essential, you must first know what you are trying to achieve. If you have no goals, you have no way of knowing if a task is essential for accomplishing those goals. Take a few minutes to review your goals (or write them for the first time). Where do you want to be in 10 years? What one big thing can you do to get there this year? What can you do in the next few months? And what can you do this week? By having these goals, you are providing yourself with a roadmap. Focus on just one goal at a time for now, until that is achieved, and then focus on the next.
    • Know your value. If you do not value yourself, you will not value your time. And then you will say yes to every request, and your to-do list will always be overflowing. Take a few minutes to think about your skills, and what you are worth. Think about how much you want your time to be worth. And now, don’t accept any work that is not worth your time and value.
    • Most bang for your buck. Look at your to-do list: which tasks on there really, really matter? Which ones will make you the most money, get you the most recognition, and pay off for you the most in the long run? Put a star next to those tasks. If you don’t have any of those tasks on your list, consider coming up with a few. These are what you should focus on.
    • Eliminate the rest. Now that you know which tasks really, really matter … see what you can eliminate of the rest. Some of them can actually be crossed off immediately. A few other strategies for eliminating tasks from your list are below.
    • Clear your mornings. Set aside a big block of time every morning (the whole morning if possible) to work on your starred tasks — the ones that really matter. This is the quiet time when you can be really productive. Once afternoon hits, things are likely to pick up, and your important tasks can be pushed back. Clear you calendar in the mornings, don’t schedule anything then, turn off your phone and email, clear off your desk, and see how much you can get done.
    • Choose three things. If your list has 20 things on it, just choose three for today. But you want to do five or seven? Be ruthless. Prioritize, and only choose three. Write those three on a separate piece of paper, and that’s your to-do list for today. Be sure that at least one of them leads to your short-term goal for this week. The other two should definitely be starred tasks — those really, really important ones.
    • Stop meetings. Meetings are almost always a waste of your time. If you control them, eliminate them. Have people report stuff through email. Collaborate using online tools. Or have one-on-one meetings, for 5-10 minutes each, if necessary, and batch them together in a one-hour chunk in the afternoon. If you don’t control them, show your boss why you shouldn’t be in a meeting, and how much you can accomplish if you didn’t have to go — make a pitch your boss can’t refuse.
    • Delegate. Take another look at your to-do list … is there stuff on there that you don’t need to be doing? Forward them on to someone else, either higher up on the food chain than you or lower, or at the same level. It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s not you. Know what needs to be done by you, and what doesn’t.
    • Default to no. Instead of taking on every request that comes your way, learn to say no. Only accept those tasks that really must be done by you, that are worth your time, and that will give you the most benefit in the long run. Say no to all the rest, as hard as that may be. Or delay — tell them to ask you again next week. Often the request will go away.
    • Shunt tasks to a folder. Have other small tasks that you need to do today that aren’t on your three-task to-do list for today? Put those tasks in a separate folder, or on another list, and put it away in a drawer. Set aside an hour or so later in the day, and batch process those small tasks. Phone calls, quick memos, paperwork, whatever — you can do these all real fast, all at once. It’s better than scattering them throughout the day.
    • Single-task. When you’re going to focus on one of your three important tasks for today, really focus. Eliminate all distractions, including the Internet and email and phones and clutter on your desk. Don’t allow anything to interrupt. Same thing if you’re going to have a one-on-one meeting with someone (as mentioned above) or batch process your smaller tasks — do one at a time. Multi-tasking will just stress you out and make you less productive. Multi-tasking is really only effective on a larger scale — doing multiple projects over the course of a month, say, instead of multiple tasks at once.
    • Set one time for email. This is probably the hardest task for most of us. Email is something we’re used to doing throughout the day. But really, for most people, email doesn’t need to be answered right away. Manage the expectations of those you communicate with — let them know that you only do email once a day, and they won’t expect an immediate answer. If this is impossible for you, at the very least, limit your email to chunks, instead of doing it throughout the day. Do it 2 or 3 times a day, or once an hour for 5 minutes, but not throughout the hour. And do not do it during your quiet time in the morning — that’s for starred tasks only.
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    More by this author

    Leo Babauta

    Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

    The Gentle Art of Saying No How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    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. 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.

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    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.

    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.

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

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    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.

    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.

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    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.

    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.

    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.

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    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.

    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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