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How to Create a To Do List and Actually Get Things Done

How to Create a To Do List and Actually Get Things Done

One of the most powerful ways to reduce stress and overwhelm when you feel anxious about your work is to sit down with a pen and piece of paper and write out all the things you have to do. What author of Getting Things Done, David Allen calls “a mind sweep”. It relieves your brain of cognitive overload and when you can see listed out all the things you have to do you get a sense of comfort knowing that it is not as bad as your brain was telling you.

However, just getting all those things you have to do out of your head, does not get the work done. It is just the first step.

To really get the benefit of making a to-do list, there are few things you can do that will make your to-do list much more effective.

1. Be Clear About What You Need to Do

I often see to do lists with tasks written like “Talk to Tim” or “Prepare presentation”. The problem with writing tasks like this is they are not clear. There are a number of questions that remain unanswered. Talk to Tim about what? What presentation? What needs preparing?

When you write a task, you will know what you want to do; but after a weekend or a few days, what you want to accomplish has become muddy and unclear. It is far better to write “Talk to Tim about next week’s trip to Berlin” or “prepare an outline for next week’s presentation to the Board of Directors”. Sure, it might take a few seconds more to write the extra words but, you will thank yourself later when you come to do the task.

Writing tasks like this makes it very clear about what you want to do. And when you sit down to begin your work, you will know exactly what is involved in doing those tasks so you can make better decisions about what to work on.

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It also saves a lot of time because the clarity means you will be able to get the right files and get started straight away, instead of having to spend a few minutes trying to remember what you need to do.

2. Don’t Randomly Date Tasks

It is very tempting to add a date to every task you write—you don’t want to forget to do it, do you?—The problem with randomly dating every task you put on your to-do list is you end up with an overwhelming daily list of tasks that do not need doing on the day you have chosen, and either you will reschedule tasks or you will just ignore them.

Instead, get more strategic. Only put a date on a task if you intend to do it on that day. I’ve seen daily to do lists with twenty to thirty tasks when the person has a day of back to back meetings. In these circumstances, there’s no way the tasks are going to get done.

It’s okay to put a reminder task in your daily to-do list—something like REMINDER: Review Project X – Does anything need doing?” Or create a list of calls to make and have one daily task that tells you to review your calls list. Just work on keeping your daily to-do list manageable and realistic.

Spending a little time each week to plan out your week based on what is on your calendar will help you keep your to-do list more effective. You can add dates to your tasks then. When you have a quiet day in the office with no meetings, have a longer list of to-dos. If you are away on a business trip, reduce the number of tasks on your list.

3. Keep Your Daily List to No More Than Ten Tasks

When I suggest this to people, they often laugh at me. They believe they are much busier than that and must have at least twenty tasks on their list.

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The problem here is with all the distractions, emergencies and interruptions you are going to get each day; you are not going to get those twenty tasks done. You will get to the end of the day frustrated because you are rescheduling twenty-five to fifty per cent of the tasks you had on your list.

Instead, at the end of the day, spend around ten to fifteen minutes prioritizing the next day. Pick the ten most important tasks on your list and highlight them in some way. Many to do list managers have a way to flag tasks and so you can add a flag to the 10 tasks you want to get done the next day.

Not only does this keep you focused on what is important, but it also forces you to choose the tasks that will have the biggest positive impact on your day.

When you start to prioritize your to-do list in this way, you will naturally become more focused and will spend more of your valuable time on tasks that move you forward on your projects and your goals.

4. Group Similar Tasks Together

When you look at your to-do list, you will notice many tasks are similar in nature.

Calling your customers, for example. If you have two or three tasks on your daily list that involve calling your customers, group these together and do them at the same time. Schedule thirty minutes or so to do your calls and do them one after the other. Likewise, if you have tasks involving email, group those together too. You will find you get a lot more done and your mind is much more focused on the work you are doing.

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It can become chaotic when you are switching between diverse types of work all day. It’s is far better for your effectiveness and productivity to do similar tasks together. You have the right tools (apps, phone email etc) open and it will save you a lot of time.

5. Make Your To-Do List Motivating

When you write tasks such as “reply to email” or “do customer follow up calls,” there is no real motivation in there. It just feels like you are going through the routine of doing the work. Where possible, write tasks like “get email inbox to zero” and “call my customers to make sure they are happy”. This might seem simplistic, but a lot of the time a to-do list has no emotional value. It is just a list of work to do.

To help make the list more inspiring, write tasks so they evoke an emotional response. Making your customers happy will be more motivating than just calling them, because that’s your job or competing with yourself to get your email inbox to zero each day adds a little more spark to the task.

Another way to make your to-do list more motivating is to keep the daily list short. As I wrote above, when your daily to-do list has no more than ten tasks on it, it will feel achievable. If it has between twenty and thirty tasks on it, it will just feel overwhelming. Far better to take a look at your daily list and feel inspired than to look at your list and feel demotivated.

6. Do a Weekly Review

For anyone who has read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, you will know all about the weekly review. Yet, it surprises me how many people skip doing it. If you want your to-do list to remain effective and up to date, then a weekly review is vital.

Over the week when you are rushing around and doing stuff, you will miss things. We are human beings and we will forget to check off tasks we have done, we will add time-sensitive tasks and not add a date and we will forget to add tasks. The weekly review is where you stop for an hour and take a big picture view of what you have to do.

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Ideally, your weekly review should be done in a distraction-free place so you can just focus on the work you have to do and plan out the following week. Get all your tasks together—you may have written tasks down in a notebook and not added them to your to-do list—and clear out tasks that are either no longer needed or have been done.

Doing a weekly review puts you in complete control. It allows you to stay on top of your work, decide what needs doing next and what can be postponed to a later time. It’s the best way I know of starting the week with a plan and a direction and it is a way to make sure you are doing the right things and not getting caught up in minor tasks that do not move you forward on your projects or your goals.

The Bottom Line

When used properly, a to-do list can be the motivation and driver that propels you to do your best work and achieve amazing things. It keeps you focused on the important things and it stops you missing tasks that otherwise may be lost.

To do lists also help you reduce stress and overwhelm because rather than trying to remember everything in your head, you have externalized all the work you have to do freeing up space in your mind for more creative endeavours.

Let’s recap the key takeaways:

  • Write tasks so it is very clear what you have to do. If you have to call someone, put their telephone number in the task to save time searching for the number.
  • Add dates that are meaningful and not random. When your daily to-do list only has tasks that must be done that day, you will be much more focused on the right work.
  • Only allow a maximum of ten to twelve flagged tasks per day on your to-do list. This does not mean you only do those tasks. If you have time and energy at the end of the day, you can always do more.
  • Group similar tasks together so you can focus in on the type of work you are doing at the same time. This helps to avoid the risks of multi-tasking.
  • Write out your tasks so they are meaningful and motivating. You want to look at your list and be motivated to get stuck in and do the work.
  • Never miss doing a full weekly review. This is the glue that keeps everything together and relevant.

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Featured photo credit: Cathryn Lavery via unsplash.com

More by this author

Carl Pullein

Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.

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Last Updated on February 17, 2021

50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time

50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time

If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do everything you want to do, maybe it’s time to check-in with your time management skills.

No one is born to be very good at time management, so that’s okay if you think you’re bad in it. But everyone can learn to boost their productivity and achieve more!

Here are 50 ways to increase productivity and add hours to your day.

1. Set a Timer

Estimate the time you need to tackle different tasks and set a timer for each of your tasks. How you go about this is up to you as there are many different ways. There is the Pomodoro technique where you focus on a task for 25 minutes followed by a five minute break afterwards.

In the event that you have a task that will take much longer than that, you can consider one of the many timer-based apps. One that comes to mind is Clockify. It’s used for freelancers and entrepreneurs alike, however it’s a good way to be setting yourself a timer. It provides reports and you can serve as a project manager of sorts too. Best of all, it’s free.

2. Eliminate All Distractions

Distractions include the phone, email notifications and having multiple web browsers open on the desktop. Just as it’s important to be organized offline, it’s key to have things organized online as well. This free guide End Distractions And Find Your Focus is a good tool to help you. With this guide, you’ll learn how to get rid of distractions and boost productivity. Grab your free guide here.

You can also learn more on how to get rid of all distractions in this guide: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

3. Listen to Music That Boosts Productivity

Distractions should be avoided, but sometimes a bit of music in the background can help you focus.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be heavy rock music, but a bit of Beethoven may do you some good.

Here’s a complete guide to help you pick the right music for better productivity: How To Maximize Your Productivity With Music: A Complete Guide

4. Find Meaning in What You Do (And Love What You Do)

Enjoying what you do is the ultimate way to increase your productivity.

If you aren’t sure what you love doing yet, don’t worry. Leo Babauta has some unique ways to help you: How to Find Your Passion

5. Prioritize your tasks ahead of time.

By listing your tasks in order of importance, you can make sure that you finish all of your most important tasks during the day.

Learn a unique technique to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster.

6. Batch Similar Tasks into a Single Batch.

Tasks like blog writing, phone calls, email and errands can be grouped into a single batch. You will save time by completing similar tasks in one session. One way to help you with organizing all of those things is through the app Todoist. It’s an easy and simple way for you to plan out your day, set reminders, and group all of your most important tasks in a convenient spot.

7. Complete Your Most Dreaded Tasks First Thing in the Morning.

Whichever activity you are dreading the most is probably the one you need to complete first thing in the morning.

Many people tend to check emails in the morning because after checking a list of emails, they feel fulfilled. But that’s just an illusion of having achieved more.

Doing simple tasks like checking emails first in the morning is bad for you. Instead, do the difficult tasks because you have more energy in the morning to tackle them!

8. Reward Yourself for Finishing a Big Task

To stay motivated for whatever you do, reward yourself every now and then.

Keep track of your small wins and milestones and celebrate them. So whenever you struggle about your progress, you see how far you’ve come!

Find out more about this 2-Step Approach to Self-Motivation: Track Small Wins and Reward Yourself.

9. Don’t Multitask

Research has shown that multitasking is not productive. If you think you can multitask, think again.

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For optimum productivity, focus on one thing at a time.

10. Step Away from the Computer

The Internet has become one of the number one distraction. To increase your productivity, try to do as much of your work offline as possible.

I do this a lot when I try to brainstom new ideas and have found it to be very beneficial to simply unplug.

11. Use Focus Tools

Make good use of apps and technology to help you remove distractions.

Here’re 18 Best Time Management Apps and Tools to help you stay focused. This way, you’re not distracted by the web, e-mail, or IM.

Also, join the free Fast-Track Class – Overcoming Distraction, and you’ll learn the one simple method to work even when you’re surrounded by distractions. Join the free session now!

12. Just Start

Often times, starting is the hardest part. People tend to wait for the perfect time with perfect condition to start. But there’s no perfect condition.

Once you get going, you will quickly get into a rhythm that could last for hours.

13. Find out Your Productive Hours

Everyone has a certain time of the day in which they are more productive than others. For me, it’s the morning.

Find out when your prime time is for productivity and optimize your work schedule accordingly.

14. Keep a Notebook and Pen on Hand at All Times

This way, you can write down your thoughts, to-dos and ideas at any time. The key is to get everything out of your head and onto paper. Your subconscious mind won’t be reminding you about it every other second. Another consideration is getting the app Evernote. Not only does this save you on ink and paper, Evernote is a convenient place for you to jot down notes and thoughts and then share them with the team. In certain circumstances, this can prove useful if you’re the type of person that has a lot of ideas that you want to share.

15. Write a Blog to Chronicle Your Own Personal Development and Achievements

The blog keeps you accountable and always working towards self improvement and personal growth.

When you write down all the small achievements you’ve been having, you’re also more motivated to move forward.

And you know what, this is how I started Lifehack too! What also helped me in starting Lifehack is WordPress, which allows people to set up a website for free. WordPress has simplified a lot of the process of building a site to the point that virtually anyone can build a website now.

16. Write out a To-Do-List Each Day

I like to plan my day the night before. This way, I can get started on my most important tasks as soon as I wake up. The Full Life Planner is a nice tool to help you organize your days and get things that matter done. Check out the planner here and start to plan your day ahead easily!

Make sure you don’t make any of these common to-do-list mistakes!

17. Write Your Most Important Tasks and To-Dos on a Calendar.

The key to good time management is knowing where to be and what to be doing there at any given time. Effective calendar management goes hand in hand with good task list management.

Learn here How to Use a Calendar to Create Time and Space.

18. Reflect on Your Productivity Constantly

As you go throughout your day, repeatedly ask yourself:

“Am I currently making the best possible use of my time?”

This one simple question can be an excellent boost to your productivity.

19. Get up Early Before Anyone Else

I know it could be difficult for some to wake up early in the morning but nothing beats a quiet house!

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Here’s How to Start Your Day at 5:00 AM and some Simple Things Early Risers Do to make waking up early easier.

20. Get Plenty of Sleep

When you work online, sleep can become a long lost memory. However, it’s important to get plenty of sleep so that your working hours can be as productive as possible.

Try out this night routine which I highly recommend for productivity: The Ultimate Night Routine Guide: Sleep Better and Wake Up Productive

21. Exercise

Research has shown that midday exercise boosts productivity and morale in the workplace.

Take a short walk at lunch or do some simple stretches during your break to maximize your productivity.

Here I have some exercises recommendations for you:

22. Outsource as Much as Possible

If you want to achieve more in less time, learn to delegate or outsource work. Here are just a few of the companies that will help you outsource your everyday tasks:

Also, read this guide to learn how to delegate effectively: How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

23. Set Some Exciting Goals

Without worthy goals, you will never be motivated to get things done.

Set goals that are challenging and achievable. The best goal setting framework is a SMART goal. That said, there are other tools that can help you out as well. For example, The Dreamers’ Guide To Reaching Your Goal is a great guide to help you set and reach goals effectively. Grab your free guide and learn how to make your goals happen this year!

24. Tell Other People About Your Goals

When you tell others about your goals, you will instantly be held accountable.

25. Listen to Podcasts

Listen to educational podcasts or audio books while you’re driving to work, cleaning the house, exercising, or cooking dinner.

Audio learning has the power to add hours to your day. Not to mention, your cranium is sure to thank you for it.

Some recommendations for you: 11 Podcasts To Inspire Yourself

26. Read David Allen’s best-selling book Getting Things Done

This is one of the most important productivity books you will ever read. Read it, apply the tips in your daily lives and get more things done.

Here’re more great books about productivity too: 35 Books on Productivity and Organizational Skills for an Effective Life

27. Learn to Speed Read

When you can read faster, you will read and learn more! Check out these 10 Ways to Increase Your Reading Speed.

You can also make use of the app OutRead to help speed up your reading speed!

28. Learn to Skip When You Read

When you’re reading a book, just read the parts that you need and skip the rest. But you have to read with a purpose.

Learn how to make it work here: How to Read 10X Faster and Retain More

29. Focus on Result-Oriented Activities

Pareto’s law (also known as the 80 20 rule) states that 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. This means that 20% of our actions result in 80% of the results.

We must find the 20% that is creating the 80% of our desired outcomes and focus solely on those activities.

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30. Take a Break

You can’t always be working at optimum productivity. Instead, you should shoot for working in short bursts at your most productive times.

31. Start a Polyphasic Sleep Schedule

What is polyphasic sleep?

Polyphasic sleep is a sleep pattern specification intended to compress sleep time to 2-5 hours daily.[1] This is achieved by spreading out sleep into short (around 20-45 minute) naps throughout the day. This allows for more waking hours with relatively high alertness.

While you can learn more about it here, you’re recommended to take some naps during the day to recharge your energy too.

32. Learn to Say “No”.

We can’t do everything and therefore we must learn when to say no in order to save our sanity.

Learn the Gentle Art of Saying No from Leo Babauta.

33. Go on an Information Diet

Most of the world lives on information overload. We must eliminate mindless Internet surfing.

Stop reading three different newspapers a day and checking your RSS feeds multiple times a day. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything done.

The key is to limit yourself only to information that you can immediately take action on. Here’re some simple tips you can try: 10 Simple Productivity Tricks To Manage Overloaded Information

34. Organize Your Office

The piles of paper around your desk can be a huge barrier on your productivity. Optimize your time by organizing your office, setting up a system and dumping the junk.

Check out these 21 Tips to Organize Your Office and Get More Done and 20 Easy Home Office Organization Ideas to Boost Your Productivity.

35. Find a Mentor

By modeling after those who have already achieved success, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy.

A good mentor is hard to find, so here’s a guide to help you: What to Look for in a Mentor

36. Learn Keyboard Shortcuts

With technology’s help, you can double your work efficiency. Even better, you learn all the shortcuts when using technology, for example keyboard shortcuts.

When you use keyboard shortcut, you gain 64 hours every year!

Not sure what shortcuts to lear? Check out these 22 Tricks That Can Make Anyone A Keyboard Ninja.

Besides learning the shortcuts, you can also create keyboard shortcuts with AutoHotKey.

37. Improve Your Typing Speed to Save Time

Do you know you can save 21 days per year just by typing fast?

You don’t really need to take some serious courses to type faster, try these typing games online:

38. Work from Home and Avoid the Daily Commute

If your job is a flexible one, consider working from home. This saves you the commute time and you’ll find yourself more energetic throughout the day as you have saved the long ride.

Take a look at these tips to help you stay productive while working from home:

How to Work from Home and Stay Ultra-Productive

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39. Get Rid of Time Wasters

Common time wasters include Instant Messenger, video games, Flickr, checking your stats 10 times a day, television and extraneous Internet surfing.

Don’t rely on your willpower, make use of some of these useful tools to help you stay focus: 10 Online Apps for Better Focus

40. Plan Your Meals in Advance

Plan out all of your meals a week ahead and make your grocery list accordingly. This allows you to focus on the necessary – saving you time and money. You can also save yourself even more time through a wide variety of apps. One app that I find helpful is Mealime. It’s an app that provides you with a wide selection of recipes and also a convenient spot for your grocery list as well.

Considering the fact that over 4 million users have this app, it goes to show that there is a good selection of meal plans that you can follow and that the app is friendly to use.

41. Cook Your Meals in Bulk

When you cook your meals in bulk, you will have plenty of leftovers. This can avoid having to cook everyday.

Find out more about how to make cooking in bulk works: Once a Month Cooking: Productivity Hack or Overrated Time Suck?

42. Protect Yourself from Unnecessary Phone Time with Caller ID

The minutes you spend on picking up unnecessary phone calls are time wasted. You can prevent that from happening.

Check out this detailed guide how you can deal with those unnecessary phone calls: How To Lose the Useless Items that Weigh Down Your Day – Cellphone Calls

43. Take Shorter Showers

This one may sound silly but it’s actually something I struggle with. I spend up to 30 minutes in the shower. Think of the time I could save simply by speeding up a bit.

44. Save the Trips to Bank by Taking Direct Deposit

Many employers now offer direct deposit. If yours does, then be sure and take advantage of it and save yourself from a number of trips to the bank.

45. Auto Pay Your Bills

How many times have you been worried about whether you missed the bills deadline?

Auto paying your bills will save you time and eliminate late fees and increased interest rates.

46. Shop Online

Whenever possible, avoid going to the store. When you shop online, you can be more focus about what you’re getting.

47. Speed up your Internet With a Broadband Connection

Many people are aware of the slow speed of internet but aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, this is the number one Internet time-saver!

If you must use dial-up, then you can use accelerators like Propel and SlipStream to double or even triple your speed.

48. Keep up the Speed of Your Computer

If you’re a Windows user, use Windows hibernation feature to avoid the slowdown of exiting and restarting Windows.

Or maybe, consider switching to Mac as there’re plenty of Advantages You Probably Don’t Know About Switching To Mac From PC.

49. Turn off the TV

The average American watches more than 4 hours of television every day. Over a 65-year life, that’s 9 years glued to the tube.

For better health and productivity, turn off the TV. Here’re 11 more reasons to tell you to stop watching TV so often.

Turn off the TV and you are sure to get more out of life.

50. Use a Tivo or DVR

This can help you cut an hour-long television show down to just 40 minutes. You can save time while not missing the fun.

So, here’s the ultimate list of techniques you should learn to boost productivity. Pick the techniques that work for you and make them your daily habits. As time goes, you’ll find yourself being a lot more productive.

More Time Management Tips

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

[1] Medical News Today: What is biphasic and polyphasic sleep?

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