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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.

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    • 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.

    How to Find Your Passion and Live a More Fulfilling Life The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life 67 Ideas to Simplify Your Life and Feel Better Today What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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