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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 September 16, 2019

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    You have a deadline looming. However, instead of doing your work, you are fiddling with miscellaneous things like checking email, social media, watching videos, surfing blogs and forums. You know you should be working, but you just don’t feel like doing anything.

    We are all familiar with the procrastination phenomenon. When we procrastinate, we squander away our free time and put off important tasks we should be doing them till it’s too late. And when it is indeed too late, we panic and wish we got started earlier.

    The chronic procrastinators I know have spent years of their life looped in this cycle. Delaying, putting off things, slacking, hiding from work, facing work only when it’s unavoidable, then repeating this loop all over again. It’s a bad habit that eats us away and prevents us from achieving greater results in life.

    Don’t let procrastination take over your life. Here, I will share my personal steps on how to stop procrastinating. These 11 steps will definitely apply to you too:

    1. Break Your Work into Little Steps

    Part of the reason why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Break it down into little parts, then focus on one part at the time. If you still procrastinate on the task after breaking it down, then break it down even further. Soon, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “gee, this is so simple that I might as well just do it now!”.

    For example, I’m currently writing a new book (on How to achieve anything in life). Book writing at its full scale is an enormous project and can be overwhelming. However, when I break it down into phases such as –

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    • (1) Research
    • (2) Deciding the topic
    • (3) Creating the outline
    • (4) Drafting the content
    • (5) Writing Chapters #1 to #10,
    • (6) Revision
    • (7) etc.

    Suddenly it seems very manageable. What I do then is to focus on the immediate phase and get it done to my best ability, without thinking about the other phases. When it’s done, I move on to the next.

    2. Change Your Environment

    Different environments have different impact on our productivity. Look at your work desk and your room. Do they make you want to work or do they make you want to snuggle and sleep? If it’s the latter, you should look into changing your workspace.

    One thing to note is that an environment that makes us feel inspired before may lose its effect after a period of time. If that’s the case, then it’s time to change things around. Refer to Steps #2 and #3 of 13 Strategies To Jumpstart Your Productivity, which talks about revamping your environment and workspace.

    3. Create a Detailed Timeline with Specific Deadlines

    Having just 1 deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate. That’s because we get the impression that we have time and keep pushing everything back, until it’s too late.

    Break down your project (see tip #1), then create an overall timeline with specific deadlines for each small task. This way, you know you have to finish each task by a certain date. Your timelines must be robust, too – i.e. if you don’t finish this by today, it’s going to jeopardize everything else you have planned after that. This way it creates the urgency to act.

    My goals are broken down into monthly, weekly, right down to the daily task lists, and the list is a call to action that I must accomplish this by the specified date, else my goals will be put off.

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    Here’re more tips on setting deadlines: 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    4. Eliminate Your Procrastination Pit-Stops

    If you are procrastinating a little too much, maybe that’s because you make it easy to procrastinate.

    Identify your browser bookmarks that take up a lot of your time and shift them into a separate folder that is less accessible. Disable the automatic notification option in your email client. Get rid of the distractions around you.

    I know some people will out of the way and delete or deactivate their facebook accounts. I think it’s a little drastic and extreme as addressing procrastination is more about being conscious of our actions than counteracting via self-binding methods, but if you feel that’s what’s needed, go for it.

    5. Hang out with People Who Inspire You to Take Action

    I’m pretty sure if you spend just 10 minutes talking to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you’ll be more inspired to act than if you spent the 10 minutes doing nothing. The people we are with influence our behaviors. Of course spending time with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates every day is probably not a feasible method, but the principle applies — The Hidden Power of Every Single Person Around You

    Identify the people, friends or colleagues who trigger you – most likely the go-getters and hard workers – and hang out with them more often. Soon you will inculcate their drive and spirit too.

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    As a personal development blogger, I “hang out” with inspiring personal development experts by reading their blogs and corresponding with them regularly via email and social media. It’s communication via new media and it works all the same.

    6. Get a Buddy

    Having a companion makes the whole process much more fun. Ideally, your buddy should be someone who has his/her own set of goals. Both of you will hold each other accountable to your goals and plans. While it’s not necessary for both of you to have the same goals, it’ll be even better if that’s the case, so you can learn from each other.

    I have a good friend whom I talk to regularly, and we always ask each other about our goals and progress in achieving those goals. Needless to say, it spurs us to keep taking action.

    7. Tell Others About Your Goals

    This serves the same function as #6, on a larger scale. Tell all your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family about your projects. Now whenever you see them, they are bound to ask you about your status on those projects.

    For example, sometimes I announce my projects on The Personal Excellence Blog, Twitter and Facebook, and my readers will ask me about them on an ongoing basis. It’s a great way to keep myself accountable to my plans.

    8. Seek out Someone Who Has Already Achieved the Outcome

    What is it you want to accomplish here, and who are the people who have accomplished this already? Go seek them out and connect with them. Seeing living proof that your goals are very well achievable if you take action is one of the best triggers for action.

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    9. Re-Clarify Your Goals

    If you have been procrastinating for an extended period of time, it might reflect a misalignment between what you want and what you are currently doing. Often times, we outgrow our goals as we discover more about ourselves, but we don’t change our goals to reflect that.

    Get away from your work (a short vacation will be good, else just a weekend break or staycation will do too) and take some time to regroup yourself. What exactly do you want to achieve? What should you do to get there? What are the steps to take? Does your current work align with that? If not, what can you do about it?

    10. Stop Over-Complicating Things

    Are you waiting for a perfect time to do this? That maybe now is not the best time because of X, Y, Z reasons? Ditch that thought because there’s never a perfect time. If you keep waiting for one, you are never going to accomplish anything.

    Perfectionism is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination. Read more about why perfectionist tendencies can be a bane than a boon: Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect.

    11. Get a Grip and Just Do It

    At the end, it boils down to taking action. You can do all the strategizing, planning and hypothesizing, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen. Occasionally, I get readers and clients who keep complaining about their situations but they still refuse to take action at the end of the day.

    Reality check:

    I have never heard anyone procrastinate their way to success before and I doubt it’s going to change in the near future.  Whatever it is you are procrastinating on, if you want to get it done, you need to get a grip on yourself and do it.

    More About Procrastination

    Featured photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via unsplash.com

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