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How to Actually Get Things Done with Your To-do List

How to Actually Get Things Done with Your To-do List

For the original unedited article, visit Greatist.

Now that the sparkly ball has long since hit the ground, we’re supposedly off and running on those New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, between work, family, and other real-life obligations, achieving our goals is almost always harder than it seems. But the problem may have started way back in 2012, when we first jotted down those goals on a piece of loose leaf or a dirty bar napkin. Creating an efficient to-do list is a feat in itself, and that’s where we come in. We’ve prepared 13 tips to help you organize your life into a manageable list, then cross off each entry in time to make some new resolutions for next year.

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TO DO OR NOT TO DO — THE NEED-TO-KNOW

List-making is a pretty personal thing. Some of us border on obsessive, organizing even our bathroom runs into a series of numbered bullet points. Others prefer to wing it, writing important telephone numbers on the backs of their hands. But even the most basic outline of must-do tasks can help us tackle our most important goals. For one thing, writing out a bunch of to-do’s forces us to set concrete goals (take out the trash), which can be way more effective than just thinking about vague objectives (get cleaner). Plus, making a written list can help us remember important information (meaning that trash won’t sit waiting in the kitchen for weeks).

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The problem is that even those of us who believe fervently in the power of to-do lists might not know how to make a successful one. Luckily Greatist is here to help, with a step-by-step guide to creating — and completing — an awesome list of stuff to get done.

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JUST TO-DO IT — YOUR ACTION PLAN

  • Pick a medium. To-do lists come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s all about what works for the individual. Some research suggests writing information by hand helps us remember it better, but if you last picked up a pen in 1995, fear not: There’s a huge range of digital apps that help create personal to-do lists.
  • Make multiples. Create a few lists of stuff that needs to get done. One should be a master list, with every item you’d like to accomplish in the long-term: Clean out the closet, sign up for a language class, etc. Another can be a weekly project list, with everything that needs to take place in the next seven days. The third should be a HIT (that’s high-impact tasks) list, with the tasks that need to get done today: Call Aunt Sue for her birthday, pick up the dry cleaning, finish that presentation for work. Every day, see which items from the master list and weekly project list should move to the HIT list.
  • Keep it simple. There’s nothing more intimidating than a mile-long to-do list. And, realistically, it’s impossible to get that much stuff done in 24 hours anyway. One trick for keeping a HIT list simple is to make a list of stuff you want to do today and slice it in half. There shouldn’t be more than 10 items remaining; the rest can go on the weekly projects list or the master list.
  • Meet the MITs. That’s “most important tasks.” Start the list with at least two items that absolutely must get done today, so you don’t end up vacuuming instead of finishing a project report due tomorrow. Even if the rest of the list stays untouched, the really meaningful stuff will get finished.
  • Start easy. Even before those MITs (see above), stick a few simple items on the list. “Fold clothes,” “wash breakfast dishes,” and “shower” are all good examples. Even crossing off silly stuff helps us start the day feeling super-productive.
  • Break it down. Goals such as “work on research paper” are much too vague and intimidating, meaning we’ll be too afraid to actually start tackling them. One way to reduce the fear factor and make goals seem more manageable is to break projects into smaller tasks. Instead of “work on research paper,” try something more specific, such as “write first half of chapter three” on Monday and “write second half of chapter three” on Tuesday.
  • Stay specific. All to-do’s should have these qualities in common: They’re physical actions; they can be finished in one sitting; and they’re tasks that only the to-do-list writer can do. For general projects that require lots of time or other people’s help, list specific steps you can take toward your goal. Instead of “save the animals,” try “write cover letter for internship at World Wildlife Fund.”
  • Include it all. For every task on the list, include as much information as possible so there’s literally no excuse for not getting the job done. For example, if the task involves calling someone, include that person’s phone number on the list so you won’t waste time scrambling for it later.
  • Time it. Now that you’ve made the list (and checked it twice), go back and put a time estimate next to every item. It might even help to turn the to-do list into a kind of schedule with specific times and places. So, for example: laundry 4-6 p.m. at Suds & Stuff, clean out inbox 6-7 p.m. at Starbucks on 6th Ave. When time’s up, it’s up; there’s no spending six hours at the Laundromat.
  • Don’t stress. Every master list has a few tasks on it that we’ve been meaning to do for days, weeks, maybe even years — but haven’t yet. Try to figure out why not in order to learn what steps are necessary for actually completing the task. Not calling Uncle Pat out of fear of getting stuck on the phone for the whole afternoon? Replace “Call Uncle Pat” with “figure out a way to get off the phone with Uncle Pat.” This way the big task will seem easier, and eventually get done.
  • Make it public. Sometimes the best way to stay accountable is to have someone watching over us. Try sharing that to-do list, whether by posting it on the family refrigerator or setting up a digital calendar that everyone on the work team can access.
  • Schedule scheduling. One of the trickiest aspects of the to-do list is actually sitting down to make one. Pick a time every day, whether it’s the morning before everyone else wakes up, the hour right before going to bed, or lunchtime, when you can organize all your tasks and determine what still needs to be accomplished.
  • Go in with the old. One way to boost productivity is to remind ourselves how productive we were yesterday. So keep a written list of everything you accomplished the day before, even the small stuff.
  • Start fresh. Make a new list every day so the same old items don’t clog up the agenda. It’s also a useful way to make sure we actually get something done every 24 hours and don’t just spend time decorating the paper with fancy highlighters.
  • Be flexible. Pro tip: Always leave about 15 minutes of “cushion time” in between items on the to-do list or calendar in case something pops up (say the washing machine overflows or the computer crashes). And if a crisis does strike, the most important thing is to remember to stop and breathe. You’ve probably already accomplished at least one MIT — you’ll get the rest under control!
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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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