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How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List

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How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List


    To do lists are vital to ensuring that we have a way to keep tabs on all of the “stuff” we’ve got going on in our lives. One of the problems with to do lists is that we tend to throw a lot on them and have a difficult time breaking it down into manageable and – better still – meaningful chunks. We tend to tackle it in the order it appears or based what we do on the deadlines that have been set for each item. Not everyone is going to be able to easily break the habit of focusing on time over task, but there are methods you can use to better connect with what’s really important to you on your to do list to make sure you’re not just checking off boxes. Instead, you’ll be checking off the right boxes.

    One of the best ways I’ve found to cultivate a better to do list is through the use of more meaningful contexts.

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    What is a Context?

    A context (in the realm of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology) is described as follows:

    “A context describes the tool, location or person that is required to be able to complete an action.” – via Evomend.net


    That essentially means you can attach a context to a task that can be based on where you need to be or what you have available to you at particular moments so that you can work on said task. But tasks like “Reply to email X” and “Go shopping for anniversary gift” somewhat lend themselves to place-based contexts without you really having to think about it.

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    So what I suggest is that you attach deeper meaning to those tasks by connecting those tasks to trait-based or emotion-based contexts.

    For example, “Reply to email X” may be an email you have to send thanking someone for coming through for you on a particular project or endeavor. So rather than tag that task with a context like “Email” or “Computer”, use “Gratitude” instead. Not only does it put you in a better mindset to send that specific email, but it also connects all of the tasks that are based on gratitude together when you search for that context (or “tag”, depending on what task management software you are using).

    Sample Trait-Based and Emotion-Based Contexts

    • Knowledge: When you are doing research for a project or learning about something.
    • Love: When you are doing a task associated with romance or fostering a romantic or family relationship.
    • Passion: When you have a burning passion for the to do list item, then this is a great context to use to stay focused on what it is you are truly passionate about (you can filter the passionate items from the ones that aren’t tagged as such).
    • Practice: When you are working towards getting better at something, using this context can help you track those things – as well as how much time and energy you are spending on them.
    • Willpower: Use this context when you really need to tap into your sense of willpower to power through a task.
    • Kindness: When you are doing something just to be kind, then this context can be very useful.

    There are plenty of other contexts you can use that can help you connect more deeply with what would normally be a list of boxes you need to check off – attaching them to these boxes won’t just give them a deeper meaning…they may actually play a much bigger part in your productivity.

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    By adding a deeper meaning to your tasks, they will become more important. That, in turn, will drive you to get more done. When you remove the known logical contexts from the equation (Home, Work, Computer, Phone) and replace them with something more “holistic” like the examples I mentioned above, there’s less of a coaxing involved to keep you moving forward.

    After all, we all know where we physically need to be to get certain things done. The trick to compelling you to do them involves tapping into the “why” you are doing them – and that’s where emotion-based contexts come into play.

    Give it a try – even with just one context to start. I bet you’ll find that a deeper meaning to your to do list will mean a deeper connection to what really matters to more than just what’s on that to do list. It’ll mean a deeper connection to what really matters to you.

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    Photo: Businessman Holding Plates with Smiles via Shutterstock

    More by this author

    Mike Vardy

    A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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    Last Updated on January 27, 2022

    5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

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    5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

    The environment of a typical office or a quiet library may sometimes lessen your productivity as the unchanging views fail to stimulate your senses and keep your brain running. If you are the kind that dislikes absolute silence or minimal noise when working, these unexpected places to work may boost your productivity level!

    1. Coffee shops

    Research has shown that an adequate amount of ambient noise stimulates your senses and keeps you alert. Where else better to find some chatter and clatter to boost your creative juices? Working in the coffee shop also guarantees something else: unlimited supplies of caffeine!

    Caffeine wakes you up by fooling adenosine receptors and speeds transmitting activities up in your nerve cells.If you do decide to try this place out, make sure that your work computer is facing the coffee shop customers so you will be less likely to procrastinate or go to inappropriate sites because people are secretly watching you.

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    If your workplace requires you to be in the office, try this website and/or phone app that provides you with sounds from coffee shops around the world. Want to work at a cafe in Paris? No problem, it’s just a button away.

    2. Cafeterias

    Similar to coffee shops, company cafeteria or food courts provide consistent noise and the smell of food. The aroma of food makes you look forward to your next break and should motivate you to complete your work.

    The act of eating likewise keeps your brain alert and produces dopamine. But make sure only to snack and stay around 60% full so that each bite is rewarding and invigorating. Snacking every 90 minutes should keep your brain balanced enough to focus on the work at hand.

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    3. Empty University Classrooms  

    Whether or not you’re an university student, we have all been a student at some point in our lives. And when you’re in a classroom, your brain is primed to stay focused because you have been conditioned to concentrate in class. In comparison to your bedroom, where your brain is primed to relax, sleep and have fun, the environment of the classroom triggers your memory to stay alert (unless you never listened in class) and work.

    If you do decide to try working in an empty university classroom, be sure to bring a studious friend. Once you see that your friend or coworker is working hard, you would feel guilty for procrastinate and be more competitive.

    Ever heard of environmental context-dependent memory? Research has shown that environmental context influences the way we encode information. If you study in the same place you first learned the material, your chances of recalling the information are significantly increased. Use environmental cues to your advantage so you spend less time doing more work!

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    4. Outdoors

    Fresh air, sunlight, cool breeze. Talk about getting your vitamin Ds the natural way. A healthy body is crucial to being productive. If you have a porch, use it to maximize your productivity!

    On a cool day, the crisp air is good for waking your brain up. If your work station is indoors and poorly ventilated, the build up of carbon dioxide will cause your brain to be less active, hence, less productive. Try to bring some work to a park nearby or an unsheltered town square where you are exposed to the sun. Fresh air will vitalize your brain and the warm sunlight will bring a smile to your face.

    5. The Shower 

    Many people experience their “Aha!” moments when they’re in the shower. Why is that? The hot water helps with circulation and improves blood flow to your brain, giving it more oxygen and nourishment to break down your work block.

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    If you aren’t motivated to work or feeling bored, a good shower will not only open up your pores, but also give your brain a boost of energy. Keep a waterproof white board and markers in the washroom so you will never lose those wonderful ideas again!

    Featured photo credit: Thomas Franke via unsplash.com

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