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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 May 7, 2021

Productivity Boost: How to start your day at 5:00 AM

Productivity Boost: How to start your day at 5:00 AM

I have been an early-riser for over a year now. Monday through Friday I wake up at 5:00 AM without hitting the snooze button even once. I never take naps and rarely feel tired throughout the day. The following is my advice on how to start your day (everyday) at 5:00 AM.The idea of waking up early and starting the day at or before the sunrise is the desire of many people. Many highly successful people attribute their success, at least in part, to rising early. Early-risers have more productive mornings, get more done, and report less stress on average than “late-risers.” However, for the unaccustomed, the task of waking up at 5:00 AM can seem extremely daunting. This article will present five tips about how to physically wake up at 5:00 AM and how to get yourself mentally ready to have a productive day.

Many people simply “can’t” get up early because they are stuck in a routine. Whether this is getting to bed unnecessarily late, snoozing repetitively, or waiting until the absolute last possible moment before getting out of bed, “sleeping in” can easily consume your entire morning. The following tips will let you break the “sleeping in” routine.

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Relocate your alarm clock.

Having an alarm clock too close to your bed is the number one reason people simply cannot get up in the morning. If your alarm clock is within arms reach of your bed, or if you can turn your alarm clock off without getting out of bed, you are creating an unnecessarily difficult situation for yourself. Before I became an early-riser, there were many times that I would turn off my alarm without even waking up enough to remember turning it off. I recommend moving your alarm clock far enough away from your bed that you have to get completely out of bed to turn it off. I keep my alarm clock in the bathroom. This may not be possible for all living arrangements, however, I use my cellphone as an alarm clock and putting it in the bathroom makes perfect sense. In order to turn off my alarm I have to get completely out of bed, and since going to the restroom and taking a shower are the first two things I do everyday, keeping the alarm clock in the bathroom streamlines the start of my morning.

Scrap the snooze.

The snooze feature on all modern alarm clocks serves absolutely no constructive purpose. Don’t even try the “it helps me slowly wake up” lie. I recommend buying an alarm that does not have a snooze button. If you can’t find an alarm without a snooze button, never read the instructions so you will never know how long your snooze button lasts. Not knowing whether it waits 10 minutes or 60 minutes should be enough of a deterrent to get you to stop using it.

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Change up your buzzer

If you use the same buzzer day in and day out, you begin to develop a tolerance to the sound. The alarm clock will slowly become less effective at waking you up over time. Most newer alarm clocks will let you set a different buzzer tone for the different days of the week. If you change your buzzer frequently, you will have an easier time waking up.

Make a puzzle

If you absolutely cannot wake up without repetitive snoozing, try making a puzzle for yourself. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that the longer your alarm is going off, the more awake you will become. Try making your alarm very difficult to turn off by putting it under the sink, putting it under the bed, or better yet, by forcing yourself to complete a puzzle to turn it off. Try putting your alarm into a combination-locked box and make yourself put in the combination in order to turn off the alarm — it’s annoying, but extremely effective!

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Get into a routine

Getting up at 5:00 AM is much easier if you are doing it Monday through Friday rather than sporadically during the week. I recommend setting an alarm once that repeats everyday. Also, going to bed at about the same time every night is an important factor to having a productive morning. Learn how much sleep you need to get in order to not feel exhausted the following day. Some people can get by on 4-6 hours while most need 7-8.

Have a reason

Make sure you have a specific reason to get up in the morning. Getting up at 5:00 AM just for the heck of it is a lot more difficult than if you are getting up early to plan your day, pay bills, go for a jog, get an early start on work, etc. I recommend finding something you want to do for yourself in the morning. It will be a lot easier to get up if you are guaranteed to do something fun for yourself — compare this to going on vacation. You probably have no problem waking up very early on vacation or during holidays. My goal every morning is to bring that excitement to the day by doing something fun for myself.

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As I previously mentioned, I have been using these tips for a very long time. Joining the world of early-risers has been a great decision. I feel less stressed, I get more done, and I feel happier than I did when I was a late-riser. If you follow these tips you can become an early-riser, too. Do you have any tips that I didn’t mention? What works best for you? Let us know in the comments.

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