Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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).

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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!
Advertising

More by this author

23 Tricks To Learn Anything Better How to Actually Get Things Done with Your To-do List How to Make Iced Coffee Perfectly How to be a Morning Person

Trending in Productivity

1 11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits 2 How Your Attitude Determines Your Success 3 How to Ask for Help When You Need It Most 4 How Much Do You Need to Give Up to Start Over? 5 Is It Really Better to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone?

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

Advertising

But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

Advertising

The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

Advertising

I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

Advertising

More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

Read Next