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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
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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

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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 July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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