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

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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.

More Productivity Tips

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 September 9, 2021

10 Best Productivity Planners To Get More Done in 2021

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10 Best Productivity Planners To Get More Done in 2021

Productivity planners and journals are tools of a trade. There’s an art to productivity. Just like art is very personal to the artist, productivity is very personal to the person. What works for you may not work for me. This is an important distinction if you really want get more done in less time.

Too many of us dabble in productivity hacks only to move on to the next tool or trend when it didn’t workout for us, missing the lesson of what worked and didn’t work about that tool or trend.

We put the tool on a pedestal and miss the art. It’s worshipping the paint brush rather than the process and act of painting. We miss the art of our own productivity when the tool overshadows the treasure.

As an artist, you have many brushes to choose from. You’re looking for a brush that feels best in your hand. You want a brush that doesn’t distract you from your art but partners with you to create the many things you see in your mind to create. Finding a brush like this may take some experimenting, but when you understand that the role of the brush is to bring life to your vision, it’s easier to find the right brush.

Planners are the same way. You want a productivity journal that supports you in the creation of your vision, not one that bogs you down or steals your energy.

Let’s dive into the 10 best productivity planners and journals to help you get more done in less time.

1. The One Thing Planner

The NY Times best selling book, The One Thing, just released their new planner. If you loved this book, you’ll love this planner.

As the founder of the world’s largest real estate company Keller Williams Realty, Gary Keller, has mastered the art of focus. The One Thing planner has its roots in industry changing productivity. If you’re out to put a dent in the universe, this may be the planner for you.

Get the planner here!

2. The Full Life Planner

The Full Life Planner is Lifehacks’ ultimate planning system to get results across all your core life aspects including work, health and relationships. This smart planner is 15 years of Lifehack’s best practices and proven success formulas by top performers.

With the Full Life Planner, you can align your actions to long term milestones every day, week, and month consistently. This will help you to get more done and achieve your goals.

Get the planner here!

3. The Freedom Journal

Creator of one of the most prolific podcasts ever, Entrepreneur on Fire, John Lee Dumas released his productivity journal in 2016. This hard-cover journal focuses on accomplishing SMART goals in 100 days.

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From their site:

“The Freedom Journal is an accountability partner that won’t let you fail. John Lee Dumas has interviewed over 2000 successful Entrepreneurs and has created a unique step-by-step process that will guide you in SETTING and ACCOMPLISHING your #1 goal in 100 days.”

Get the planner here!

4. Full Focus Planner

Michael Hyatt, author of Platform and host of the podcast “This is Your Life”, also has his own planner called the Full Focus Planner.

From the site:

“Built for a 90-day achievement cycle, the Full Focus Planner® gives you a quarter of a year’s content so you aren’t overwhelmed by planning (and tracking) 12 months at a time.”

This productivity planner includes a place for annual goals, a monthly calendar, quarterly planning, the ideal week, daily pages, a place for rituals, weekly preview and quarterly previews. It also comes with a Quickstart lessons to help you master the use of the planner.

Get the planner here!

5. Passion Planner

They call themselves the #pashfam and think of their planner as a “paper life coach”. Their formats include dated, academic and undated in hardbound journals with assorted colors. With over 600,000 users they have a track record for effective planners.

From the site:

“An appointment calendar, goal setting guide, journal, sketchbook, gratitude log & personal and work to-do lists all in one notebook.”

They have a get-one give-one program. For every Passion Planner that is bought they will donate one to a student or someone in need.

They also provide free PDF downloads of their planners. This is a great way to test drive if their planner is right for you.

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Get the planner here!

6. Desire Map Planners

If you’re looking for a more spiritually oriented planner, Danielle LaPorte, author of The Desire Map, created the Desire Map Planners. With Daily planners, Weekly planners and Undated planners you can find the right fit for you.

Behind this planner is the Desire Map Planner Program including 3 workbooks that not only support you in using the planners but guide you in your thought process about your life and intentions you’re using the planner to help you fulfill.

Get the planner here!

7. Franklin Covey Planners

The grandfather of all planners, Franklin Covey, has the most options when it comes to layouts, binders, and accessories. With over 30 years in the productivity planner business, they not only provide a ton of planner layouts, they also have been teaching productivity and planning from the beginning.

From the site:

“Achieve what matters most with innovative, high quality planners and binders tailored to your personal style. Our paper planning system guides you to identify values, create successful habits, and track and achieve your goals.”

Get the planner here!

8. Productivity Planner

From the makers of the best selling journal backed by Tim Ferriss, “The Five Minute Journal”, comes the Productivity Planner.

Combining the Ivy Lee method which made Charles Schwab millions with the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused in the moment, the Productivity Planner is both intelligent and effective.

It allows for six months of planning, 5-day daily pages, weekly planning and weekly review, a prioritized task list, Pomodoro time tracking, and extra space for notes.

From the site:

“Do you often find yourself busy, while more important tasks get procrastinated on? The Productivity Planner helps you prioritize and accomplish the vital few tasks that make your day satisfying. Quality over quantity. Combined with the Pomodoro Technique to help you avoid distractions, the Productivity Planner assists you to get better work done in less time.”

Get the planner here!

9. Self Journal

Endorsed by Daymond John of Shark Tank, the Self Journal takes a 13 week approach and combines Monthly, Weekly and Daily planning to help you stay focused on the things that really matter.

Self Journal includes additional tools to help you produce with their Weekly Action Pad, Project Action Pad, the Sidekick pocket journal to capture your ideas on the go and their SmartMarks bookmarks that act as a notepad while you’re reading.

Get the planner here!

10. Google Calendar

You may already use Google Calendar for appointments, but with a couple tweaks you can use it as a productivity planner.

Productivity assumes we have time to do the work we intend to do. So blocking time on your Google Calendar and designating it as “busy” will prevent others from filling up those spaces on your calendar. Actually using those blocks of time as you intended is up to you.

If you use a booking tool like Schedule Once or Calendly, you can integrate it with your Google Calendar. For maximum productivity and rhythm, I recommend creating a consistent “available” block of time each day for these kinds of appointments.

Google Calendar is free, web based and to the point. If you’re a bottom line person and easily hold your priorities in your head, this may be a good solution for you.

Get the planner here!

Bonus Advice: Integrate the 4 Building Blocks of Productivity

Just as important to productivity planners as the tool are the principles that we create inside of. There are 4 building blocks of productivity, that when embraced, accelerate your energy and results.

The four building blocks of productivity are desire, strategy, focus and rhythm. When you get these right, having a productivity planner or journal provides the structure to keep you on track.

Block #1: Desire

Somehow in the pursuit of all our goals, we accumulate ideas and To-Do’s we’re not actually passionate about and don’t really want to pursue. They sneak their way in and steal our focus from the things that really matter.

Underneath powerful productivity is desire. Not many little desires, but the overarching mother of desires. The desire you feel in your gut, the desire that comes from your soul, not your logic, is what you need to tap into if you want to level up your productivity.

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A productivity planner is just a distraction if you’re not clear on what it’s all for. With desire, however, your productivity planner provides the guide rails to accomplish your intentions.

Block #2: Strategy

Once you’re clear on your overarching desire, you need to organize your steps to get there. Let’s call this “strategy”. Strategy is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. You must first turn over all the pieces to see patterns, colors, connections and find borders.

In business and life, we often start trying to put our “puzzle” together without turning over all the pieces. We put many items on our To-Do lists and clog our planners with things that aren’t important to the bigger picture of our puzzle.

Strategy is about taking the time to brain dump all the things in your head related to your goal and then looking for patterns and priorities. As you turn over these puzzle pieces, you’ll begin to see the more important tasks that take care of the less important tasks or make the less important tasks irrelevant.

In the best selling book, The One Thing, the focusing question they teach is:

“What’s the One thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else is easier or unnecessary?”

This is the heart of strategy and organizing what hits your planner and what doesn’t.

Block #3: Focus

With your priorities identified, now you can focus on the One Thing that makes everything else easier or unnecessary. This is where your productivity planners and journals help you hold the line.

Because you’ve already turned over the puzzle pieces, you aren’t distracted by new shiny objects. If new ideas come along, and they will, you will better see how and where they fit in the big picture of your desire and strategy, allowing you to go back and focus on your One Thing.

Block #4: Rhythm

The final building block of productivity is rhythm. There is a rhythm in life and work that works best for you. When you find this rhythm, time stands still, productivity is easy and your experience of work is joyful.

Some call this flow. As you hone your self-awareness about your ideal rhythm you will find yourself riding flow more often and owning your productivity.

Without these four building blocks of productivity, you’re like a painter with a paintbrush and no idea how to use it to create what’s in your heart to create. But harness these four building blocks and find yourself getting more done in less time.

The Bottom Line

Your life is your art. Everyday you have a chance to create something amazing. By understanding and using the four building blocks of productivity, you will set yourself up for success no matter which planner, or “paintbrush”, you choose to use.

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As you experiment with different planners you will narrow which one is best for you and accelerate your path to putting a dent in the universe.

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Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

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