9 Secrets to Making the Perfect To-Do List (That Gets Results)
Do you feel unfulfilled in your day-to-day performance, as if something is holding you back, that you are not achieving your full potential, that you could be doing more? Do you often feel that there are too many things to do and too little time to do them? Are you often jumping from one task to another without satisfactorily completing any task? Do you sometimes get distracted or interrupted when you are working and that is affecting your productivity?
If your answer to any of these questions is “yes”, you are not alone.
So many people feel that way, that they are misusing their time, that they don’t have enough time to work on all the tasks they are supposed to have completed by the end of the day.
If you are one of them, one of the best solutions to these problems is the to-do list.
The to-do list is a simple, practical tool that has been shown to be a consistently successful way of organizing your day for increased efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity.
However, making a to-do list that works is a skill many of us lack.
It is not enough to make a list of the things you want to do.
There are certain factors about your psychology and why you do the things you do (Such as procrastination) that should be taken into consideration when creating a to-do list.
Below, let’s take a look at 9 tips that will help you make a to-do list that gets results.
1. EAT THE FROGS FIRST
You have no doubt heard the following phrase thrown around in productivity blogs: Eat the frog first. The phrase was coined by Brian Tracy.
It is based on a Mark Twain quote which says that if one begins the day by eating a live frog, nothing worse will happen to him or her for the rest of the day.
The “live frog” in this case represents the difficult tasks. We all have such tasks, the ones we dread, the ones that mostly make us procrastinate.
If you have ever found yourself answering emails or doing house chores or working on something else entirely unrelated to the task you SHOULD be concentrating on, then that task is the frog.
A frog is either an extremely difficult task or an extremely important task. What is constant is your tendency to put it off endlessly. Frogs are the tasks you don’t want to do but which you need to do. You know the frog by the feeling of dread that comes over you when you think about tackling it.
The logic behind the “eat the frog” philosophy is simple. If you do the thing you dread most first thing in the morning, then everything else will be easier to do.
Besides, getting progress on your difficult tasks gives you a shot of energy, a desire to keep crossing items off your to-do list. This fuels you through the rest of the day.
Crossing off to-do list items can be fun and addictive.
When you start your day with the tasks you dread most, the rest of the day becomes like going downhill.
Since the most dreadful or difficult tasks are behind you, working on the rest of the tasks feels a lot easier.
You are less likely to procrastinate when you eat the frog first.
Since the task you dread is the one that causes you to procrastinate, it is best to invest the high energy and focus you usually have in the morning into completing this task.
If you schedule the tasks you dread for later in the day, the risk of procrastinating increases.
This is because you will have used a lot of mental energy working on the previous tasks.
Willpower requires energy, and if your stores of willpower are low, you will be defenseless against temptations such as social media, which rob you of your time.
When willpower is low, it is easy to find yourself aimlessly surfing the internet, diligently avoiding the tasks you should be working on.
At the end of the day, you’ll feel wasted, having achieved little or nothing.
One of the advantages of the “eat the frog first” principle is that it forces you to prioritize the most important and the most challenging tasks. It forces you to become more mindful of your day’s tasks and order them by difficulty and importance.
This ensures the most important, urgent, or difficult tasks get done, no matter what.
If you don’t order your day this way, you are likely to end up spending too much of your precious time on trivial tasks, leaving little or no time for the important tasks.
2. HAVE TIME LIMITS FOR EACH TASK
Tasks expand to fit the time limit they are given.
If there is no time limit, the time taken to finish the task is likely to get extremely long.
Putting time limits on the tasks you are doing creates a sense of urgency. If you have thirty minutes to work on a report, you are more likely to finish it faster than if you are open to start working on it at any time and finish at any time.
One of the causes of procrastination is this lack of urgency in the tasks you are undertaking. When you have a deadline you are working towards, you work efficiently and fast, wasting very little time.
When you have a deadline, you are focused. You don’t get sidetracked easily.
For instance, when you are working on a paper that requires research on the internet, you sometimes come across interesting things that take you down endless rabbit holes of time wastage.
If you have not imposed any time limit for working on the paper, your impulse control will be low and curiosity will cause you to fall down the rabbit holes.
On the other hand, if you have a time limit imposed, you will feel constrained by the limited time frame and will be able to identify what is pertinent for your task and what is a waste of your time.
You are more likely to focus completely on the task at hand, spurred on by your determination to complete the task within the time you had allotted.
As we said, crossing off to-do list items from your list is thrilling.
Even more thrilling is crossing off to-do list items while having completed them within the time frame you had allotted.
It makes you feel like someone who is really capable of getting things done and gives you the jolt of energy you need to spur you through the next task and the one after that.
3. NARROW DOWN TO FEWER TASKS
A lot of people make to-do lists they can’t complete within the hours available. They pack in too many tasks in the list so that many of these tasks end up spilling into the next day.
A to-do list is not a wish list. It’s not a list of the things you wish to do. It is a list of the things you intend to do. Note the difference. What you wish to do is an aspiration. You may or may not do it.
What you intend to do is an obligation. It is a promise to yourself, a binding agreement with yourself.
When you put down a task as a to-do, consider it a debt that you have to pay with your time rather than money, a debt to yourself.
Therefore, do not populate your to-do list with all the tasks you hope to do.
Instead, fill it with the tasks that you are absolutely sure you will do. It is this certainty that gives you the fuel to complete every single task in the to-do list.
Don’t crowd the to-do list with too many tasks. Trim it to the ones that are most relevant. You don’t have to do everything you can think of.
This is why imposing time limits on each task is every important.
While you are drawing up the to-do list for the day, visualize how long each task should take you.
By doing so, you can estimate how many tasks can be packed within the day.
Remember to give yourself some leeway, since you are not a robot and will have to take breaks now and then.
Some tasks could also end up taking more time than expected.
Furthermore, you are most likely not working in isolation, for instance if you are in an office environment, and you are likely to get interrupted now and then.
Factor such things in how you structure the to-do list, how many tasks you list, and how much time you allocate to each task.
Besides, when you have too many items on your to-do list, it becomes too overwhelming.
At every moment of the day, your mind will be thinking about all the things you are yet to do.
This can cause anxiety. One way people react to a feeling of overwhelm of tasks is to give up completely. They procrastinate.
In addition, this anxiety is not good for our physical or mental health. It can seriously impact on your productivity.
When you are working on a task that requires absolute focus and a high level of creativity, being anxious can ruin your ability to do a quality job or to even get the task done.
4. IDENTIFY THREE TOP PRIORITIES
In the previous point, I said that you should narrow your list down to the things you intend to do rather than those you merely wish to do.
Now, I am asking you to narrow it down even further.
Of all the items in the to-do list you have made, identify three that have the highest priority.
These are the three items that you have to accomplish that day, come what may.
Thing happen unexpectedly, life intrudes, and we suddenly lose time we thought we had.
When that happens, instead of following the to-do list as exactly planned, you can ignore some of the non-important or non-urgent tasks and replace them with the three top priorities, if you haven’t already worked on them.
Doing this will ensure that every day is productive. Many people assume that they are productive because they have been busy throughout the day. However, being busy is not equivalent to being productive. Productivity is proven by the results of your time.
What are the deliverables of the time you have invested? For instance, if you are working on a report, the deliverable would be a finished report. A productive person will have a higher rate of deliverables than one who is not well-organized.
Identifying the three key tasks that must be carried out ensures that you are always delivering in the areas that matter.
For instance, for a salesman, important tasks might be looking for new clients and doing follow ups with old clients – these two are things the salesman must do every day for his productivity to increase.
If he doesn’t look for new clients, he won’t increase his commission. If he doesn’t follow up with old clients, he will lose them and his commission will decrease.
Just like the salesman, you have to identify three tasks that are critical and make sure you do them.
At the end of the day, no matter what else doesn’t get done, so long as you have worked on those three top-priority tasks, you will still have had a quite productive day.
A great way to prioritize you tasks is to use the Eisenhower prioritization matrix, where you divide you tasks into four categories: important and urgent, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, and unimportant and not urgent. You can then focus on the most important tasks in the important and urgent category.
5. CREATE MULTIPLE LISTS
Remember when I said that you should make a to-do list and not a wish-list? Well, now I am telling you that you should make a wish list.
Make a list that contains all the things you want to accomplish in the long-term – for instance, in the course of the month.
You can make this at the beginning of the month. You can also make another list or the things you want to do in the course of the week.
You don’t have to do everything in these extra lists. They are there to act as a guideline.
When you are making your daily to-do list, you can skim through your month or week list and pick the tasks you are going to work on during this particular day.
Having a list that covers activities for a longer period gives you a long-term mindset when it comes to your tasks.
This is an improvement over seeing them as things you have to complete in one day (which is what makes you pile too many tasks in one day).
These extra lists become the source for your daily to-do lists.
This long-term approach enables you to feel that you are achieving something not just in the day, but in the week and in the month.
When you cross tasks off your day’s list, you feel good during that day. You have a jolt of energy which pushes you through the rest of the day, but the next day you have to start again at scratch.
On the other hand, when you are crossing off tasks in your list for the entire month, that gives you a bigger, longer-lasting jolt of energy. The more tasks you cross off, the more confident and self-controlled you become day after day.
In other words, having lists for the day or the month enables you to be consistently focused and productive on a daily basis, not just one day. You are riding on a month-long wave of productivity.
6. BREAK IT DOWN
A to-do list needs clarity. It’s easier to list big goals as that will keep your list short.
However, when the goal is too big or too vague, or contains too many components, this creates the fear of starting.
You start to procrastinate because you can’t figure out what or where to start.
For instance, if the task is, “prepare research paper”, you might feel daunted by the fact that you do not know where to start. In the end, you procrastinate until the time is up before you do anything.
It would be easier to just start, of course, but procrastination is irrational, caused by emotions rather than logic.
The best way to avoid this problem is to break down the task into several sub-tasks or components. What is entailed in preparing a research paper?
How long will each of these components take? When you break down tasks, they start to seem more manageable.
Instead of the enormity that is “prepare research paper”, you are now focusing one single task at a time.
With your mind focused on finishing this task within the timeframe you have set for yourself, you are less likely to procrastinate.
People rarely procrastinate the small tasks – it’s always the large, complex ones that cause anxiety.
7. PREPARE IT THE PREVIOUS NIGHT
Work on tomorrow’s to-do list today. You may do it at night before you go to bed or you may do it just before you leave the office for home – whichever feels best to you.
The point here is simple. When you prepare your to-do list the previous day, it ensures that the tasks stay in your mind throughout the night.
Even if you are not consciously thinking about them, your subconscious mind is mulling on them, even in your sleep.
Consider that for you to prepare a to-do list, you have to thoroughly visualize how the day will go, how each task will take place, and how much time you are going to allocate to each task.
By thinking things through this way, you are feeding your mind with information on what you want to do.
This internalizes your goals in your mind and creates an internal will to act on these goals.
Furthermore, the mind will be mulling on these tasks subconsciously when you are asleep.
If there is a problem in any of the tasks that you’re worried about, you could even wake up with a solution.
When you go to sleep with a good idea of what you are going to do the next day, you are more likely to sleep well.
When you are uncertain about what you need to work on, the uncertainty can cause anxiety which makes it difficult to fall asleep.
When you have a good plan of everything you need to do that day, you wake up feeling energized.
If making a to-do list is the first thing you usually do in the morning, imagine how fulfilling it is to wake up having already crossed that first to-do list item. You wake up with energy, eager to start attacking whatever is first on your list.
8. MAKE A TO-DON’T LIST
To-do lists would be a cake walk if it weren’t for all the things that intrude.
You want to work on the tasks in your list, but other things keep interrupting.
For instance, you check your email halfway through working on the report, and for several minutes you become occupied with reading and replying to emails.
Other things that might interrupt you include social media and surfing the web.
Sometimes, the interruption may not even be from technology.
A colleague could come to your desk with the latest gossip in the office grapevine. You might get a craving for a burger and leave your workstation to get one. You might go for a walk. A friend could call you and chat endlessly for minutes.
All these, if they are likely interruptions, are things that should go into your to-don’t list.
Having such things on your to-don’t list reminds you to put a stop to these activities before they interrupt you from your work and make it impossible for you to complete the tasks on your to-do list.
For instance, if a colleague comes over to your desk for a mindless chat, your to-don’t list will remind you that this is not something you should be doing, and you can ask them to come back later when you are less busy.
9. REVIEW AT THE END OF THE DAY
Schedule some time at the end of the day to sit quietly and reflect on the day you have had.
This is when you get to review how successful you have been at adhering to your to-do list. What tasks did you leave undone?
Which tasks didn’t you complete to satisfaction? Which tasks did you complete within the timeline you had set and which ones didn’t you?
This will help you track your progress as far as productivity and discipline are concerned, which will help you improve.
It also enables you to identify which tasks you should push to the next day or schedule for another day.
While a to-do list is meant to help you do everything you are supposed to, there’s a lot of people who create to-do lists but still do not complete any of the tasks on their to-do list.
The key is to create a perfect to-do list that guarantees results. In this article, I have just broken down for you what it takes to create such a to-do list.
Start with the most challenging tasks, set time limits for each task, narrow down to fewer tasks, identify the three top priority tasks, create multiple lists, break down each task into sub-tasks, prepare the list the night before, make a to-don’t list, and review your list at the end of the day.
Test these strategies for at least one week and observe the improvement in your productivity.
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