Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on February 11, 2020

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

More Productivity Tips

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.

What Is a Bullet Journal and What Are the Benefits? 10 Practical Ways Less Is More How to Stop Wasting Time and Be More Productive Why You Need to Set Future Goals (And How to Reach Them) 5 Spring Cleaning Tips That Will Hugely Boost Your Productivity

Trending in Productivity

1 How to Stop Being Passive and Start Getting What You Want 2 How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement 3 5 Less-Known Reasons Why Less is More 4 10 Smart Productivity Software to Boost Work Performance 5 How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

What is decision fatigue? Let me explain this with an example:

When determining a court ruling, there are many factors that contribute to their final verdict. You probably assume that the judge’s decision is influenced solely by the nature of the crime committed or the particular laws that were broken. While this is completely valid, there is an even greater influential factor that dictates the judge’s decision: the time of day.

In 2012, a research team from Columbia University[1] examined 1,112 court rulings set in place by a Parole Board Judge over a 10 month period. The judge would have to determine whether the individuals in question would be released from prison on parole, or a change in the parole terms.

While the facts of the case often take precedence in decision making, the judges mental state had an alarming influence on their verdict.

As the day goes on, the chance of a favorable ruling drops:

Advertising

    Image source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

    Does the time of day, or the judges level of hunger really contribute that greatly to their decision making? Yes, it does.

    The research went on to show that at the start of the day the likelihood of the judging giving out a favorable ruling was somewhere around 65%.

    But as the morning dragged on, the judge became fatigued and drained from making decision after decision. As more time went on, the odds of receiving a favorable ruling decreased steadily until it was whittled down to zero.

    However, right after their lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom feeling refreshed and recharged. Energized by their second wind, their leniency skyrockets back up to a whopping 65%. And again, as the day drags on to its finish, the favorable rulings slowly diminish along with the judge’s spirits.

    This is no coincidence. According to the carefully recorded research, this was true for all 1,112 cases. The severity of the crime didn’t matter. Whether it was rape, murder, theft, or embezzlement, the criminal was more likely to get a favorable ruling either early in the morning, or after the judges lunch break.

    Advertising

    Are You Suffering from Decision Fatigue Too?

    We all suffer from decision fatigue without even realizing it.

    Perhaps you aren’t a judge with the fate of an individual’s life at your disposal, but the daily decisions you make for yourself could hinder you if you’re not in the right head-space.

    Regardless of how energetic you feel (as I imagine it is somehow caffeine induced anyway), you will still experience decision fatigue. Just like every other muscle, your brain gets tired after periods of overuse, pumping out one decision after the next. It needs a chance to rest in order to function at a productive rate.

    The Detrimental Consequences of Decision Fatigue

    When you are in a position such as a Judge, you can’t afford to let your mental state dictate your decision making; but it still does. According to George Lowenstein, an American educator and economy expert, decision fatigue is to blame for poor decision making among members of high office. The disastrous level of failure among these individuals to control their impulses could be directly related to their day to day stresses at work and their private life.

    When you’re just too tired to think, you stop caring. And once you get careless, that’s when you need to worry. Decision fatigue can contribute to a number of issues such as impulse shopping (guilty), poor decision making at work, and poor decision making with after work relationships. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.

    How to Make Decision Effectively

    Either alter the time of decision making to when your mind is the most fresh, or limit the number of decisions to be made. Try utilizing the following hacks for more effective decision making.

    Advertising

    1. Make Your Most Important Decisions within the First 3 Hours

    You want to make decisions at your peak performance, so either first thing in the morning, or right after a break.

    Research has actually shown that you are the most productive for the first 3 hours[2] of your day. Utilize this time! Don’t waste it on trivial decisions such as what to wear, or mindlessly scrolling through social media.

    Instead, use this time to tweak your game plan. What do you want to accomplish? What can you improve? What steps do you need to take to reach these goals?

    2. Form Habits to Reduce Decision Making

    You don’t have to choose all the time.

    Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it doesn’t have to be an extravagant spread every morning. Make a habit out of eating a similar or quick breakfast, and cut that step of your morning out of the way. Can’t decide what to wear? Pick the first thing that catches your eye. We both know that after 20 minutes of changing outfits you’ll just go with the first thing anyway.

    Powerful individuals such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg don’t waste their precious time deciding what to wear. In fact, they have been known to limiting their outfits down to two options in order to reduce their daily decision making.

    Advertising

    3. Take Frequent Breaks for a Clearer Mind

    You are at your peak of productivity after a break, so to reap the benefits, you need to take lots of breaks! I know, what a sacrifice. If judges make better decisions in the morning and after their lunch break, then so will you.

    The reason for this is because the belly is now full, and the hunger is gone. Roy Baumeister, Florida State University social psychologist[3] had found that low-glucose levels take a negative toll on decision making. By taking a break to replenish your glucose levels, you will be able to focus better and improve your decision making abilities.

    Even if you aren’t hungry, little breaks are still necessary to let your mind refresh, and come back being able to think more clearly.

    Structure your break times. Decide beforehand when you will take breaks, and eat energy sustaining snacks so that your energy level doesn’t drop too low. The time you “lose” during your breaks will be made up in the end, as your productivity will increase after each break.

    So instead of slogging through your day, letting your mind deteriorate and fall victim to the daily abuses of decision making, take a break, eat a snack. Let your mind refresh and reset, and jump-start your productivity throughout the day.

    More Tips About Decision Making

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next