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If you find that you’re not finishing up all the things in a day that you really want to, you might find that a to-do list is just the thing to kick you into gear.
To-do lists are great for productivity, and people have been using them for centuries (possibly longer) in order to make sure they’re finishing all their work in a timely manner.
But if you’ve never personally kept up with a to-do list, you might find yourself constantly slipping away from using it and falling over and over again into old (bad) habits.
Fortunately, we’ve got you covered.
We’ve put together a guide to help you figure out the best way to create and maintain a to-do list to help keep you on task for your professional and personal life.
Why Can’t People Finish Their To-Do Lists?
People struggle to finish the tasks on their daily to-do lists because of distractions, unexpected tasks, and improper planning.
To-do lists seem simple enough to put together — you think of all the stuff you want to do, and then you write it down.
By the same token, it seems simple to complete a to-do list — you just look at what you’ve got written down, and, focusing on one thing at a time, you do those things.
So why is it that the vast majority of people can’t seem to finish their to-do lists? For one thing, we’re not working on them in the correct way.
We’re focusing on them in the wrong order, not taking enough time to familiarize ourselves with the medium we’re keeping our to-do lists on, or (worst of all) we’re just forgetting the check the list often enough to actually have any hope of finishing them.
All of these things are bad and get in the way of finishing a to-do list, but they can be worked on.
But that’s a process that starts when you make the list itself.
How to Start Your To-Do List
Making a to-do list is not as simple as described above.
If all that you do is write down everything you know you need to do without giving a thought to how you’re actually going to be using the list, you’re giving yourself a major handicap straight out of the gate. You might even be dooming yourself to fail entirely.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can put together a to-do list that can help you in the long run when it comes to actually completing your tasks.
Here are some big things you should keep in mind when first starting your to-do list:
Make a ranking system. First of all, you want to find the most personally useful way to segment your list. For most people, this means making distinctions between work tasks and non-work tasks and ranking the things you need to do in order of importance and urgency.
Estimate time commitments. It’s also important that you add estimates wherever you can for how long a particular task is going to take you. This will help you decide on when to get started on the item, in addition to helping you be a little more realistic about the amount of work that you can knock out in a single day.
Cut the fluff. Lastly, you want to remove any unnecessary items from your to-do list. Things like “get dinner” or “take a shower” (i.e., stuff you’re probably going to do regardless of whether you write it down) will only serve to stress you out by making your to-do list clunkier than it needs to be.
So trim it down to only the tasks that a to-do list would genuinely help you complete, where finishing the task is an actual accomplishment (however small of one).
Keeping Up With and Maintaining the Use of Your To-Do List
Of course, even the most beautifully constructed to-do list is meaningless if you don’t work to put in place the habits necessary to actually complete it.
As with developing any habit, using a to-do list in the long term requires you to be consistent with it in the short term.
That means that every single day, you need to take a moment to construct or check up on your to-do list, and you need to have some sort of process in place for checking items off of it or otherwise marking your progress — otherwise, what’s the point?
Here are some of the things you should keep in mind when it comes to continuously and consistently using your to-do list:
Prioritize. Be intentional about choosing which tasks to complete first on your to-do list. Generally speaking, you should be finishing items in an order based on their importance and general urgency.
Items that rank highest in both of those categories should be finished first and without delay — odds are that later items you complete will be the easier ones anyway, but if nothing else, it means that you’ll be moving from items of most stress to those that stress you out the least, which is good for your mental well-being.
For visual learners, it might help to draw a 2×2 matrix with the words “important” and “unimportant” labeling the columns and “urgent” and “not urgent” labeling the rows. Then, assign each of your tasks a box based on those two factors. That way, you can start with the tasks that are both urgent and important and work your way down these levels.
Consider using the 1-3-5 method. This method involves picking one big thing, three medium things, and five small things to do every day. Not only does this tend to be a reasonable amount of work to finish in a day, but it will also help you feel productive as you go about that work.
Don’t get discouraged if these exact numbers don’t work out every day. The important part is that you’re prioritizing your work and creating a mental map of where tasks rank in terms of significance for your job.
If you’re not sure what big, medium, and small things look like for your work, you can always use conversations with your supervisor to determine their priorities — your own priorities should probably be closely aligned to their expectations.
Use only one to-do list app. Some people make the mistake of thinking that having more productivity software automatically makes them more productive. Not only is this not true, but cluttering your life with more apps to keep track of is, ironically, getting in the way of your productivity.
There are many great apps out there for to-do lists and general productivity — definitely shop around and see what UI you like and what features are helpful for you. But once you find a to-do list you like, delete all the others and stay faithful to this one app from now on.
Break big tasks down. There’s a time management concept called the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in four 25-minute chunks, with 5-minute breaks in between, and a longer break at the end of a four-cycle. You can apply the same logic to a to-do list.
When you have a big item on your to-do list that’s likely to take several hours, try breaking it down into more manageable tasks that can be completed in 30 minutes or less. For some people, this helps make the assignment seem more doable, while for others, it just makes it seem like an even bigger mountain of work.
Keep a “done” list. Most folks like to see the tangible progress they’ve made over the day. It makes you feel good about yourself to realize that you were productive and completed everything you set out to do. On the flip side, a “done” list also keeps you accountable if you don’t hit your targets for the day.
Don’t let that discourage you, though. As you get better at keeping and maintaining a to-do list, you’ll become more accurate with your estimates and know what a super productive day looks like, realistically.
Stick to it. Whatever your method of finishing your to-do list, make sure to try it for 30 days. It takes at least a month of doing something every day in order to make a habit of it, and it can be easy to drop off at that point. But the more you do it, the likelier you are to start finding it easier to keep up with than it is to ignore.
That’s all for this one! Just keep in mind: It’s tough to keep up with your to-do list if you have too many productivity apps that you’re trying to juggle, particularly if all of those apps happen to just be different to-do lists.
It’s important to remember that bigger isn’t better when it comes to to-do lists. The more of them that you have, the more overwhelming they can feel, and the less likely you’ll be to actually keep up with them and finish items off of them.
So while it’s okay to try out a lot of different productivity apps to see which ones are the most appealing to you, in the end, you want to stick to just one of them.
Learn how it works inside and out, and you’ll find yourself keeping up with it without even thinking about it.
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