How to Make a To-Do List You Will Use

Updated: 06 Jan, 2022 | Bill Peatman

Are you looking for a productivity system? You are not alone. Prialto's 2021 Executive Productivity Report surveyed 600 executives about their productivity practices. Some 75 percent of executives adopted a productivity system from 2020-2021.

Some say that the to-do list began with God's plan to create the universe in six days and then spent day seven enjoying said universe.

The to-do list is an ancient productivity tool, but it does not always work. It seems easy enough—write down your tasks in order of importance and do them. Then enjoy some god-like rest. Psychologists say just the act of writing down a project can decrease anxiety about getting it done. And a study found that waiters at restaurants remember guests' orders better before serving them than after.

7 Tips for Creating a To-Do List that Works

But a to-do list does not always work. Here are some tips to succeed with yours.

1. Choose Your Weapon

The first step in creating effective to-do lists is identifying the tool you use. The big picture question is a "paper or plastic" one. Will a handwritten or typed list work best? Or would an app like Todoist or Asana work better for you? There are pros and cons to both. The pros of "paper" to-list are:

  • Everyone can do it.
  • It is fast and easy.
  • You keep it in front of your eyeballs all day long.
  • It is free.

The cons on a written or typed list are:

  • It is easily lost.
  • It is cumbersome to edit.
  • It does not give you reminders or alerts.
  • It is harder to track success over time.

The advantages of an app-based to-do list align with the disadvantages of a physical list are:

  • It stays with you everywhere.
  • It does not get lost.
  • You can set reminders and alerts.
  • You can track your success over time.

The cons of app-based to-do lists are:

  • There is a learning curve you do not have with written lists.
  • Cost—although free versions are available with limited functionality.

Check out this independent review site of to-do list apps.

2. Keep it Short

The brain can only handle lists of seven or fewer tasks. Then we get overwhelmed and paralyzed. It is called the "tyranny of choice." It is real. It is no wonder, then, that one of the gurus of the modern to-do list system, Ivy Lee, who famously boosted the productivity of Bethlehem Steel in1918, recommended limiting your daily to-do list to the six most important tasks. One way to trim your to-do list is to leave out routine tasks that you do automatically. For example, some people recommend scripting your entire day from "wake up" to "go to sleep." That seems excessive.

3. Prioritize

Related to keeping it short is prioritization. Organize your list by priority to get the most important stuff done. If you have trouble prioritizing, use the Eisenhower Matrix, named after the former president and general who coined the phrase, "the urgent is seldom important, and the important is seldom urgent." The matrix is a simple quadrant that divides tasks by urgency and importance.

  • Tasks that are urgent and important are your top priority.
  • Tasks that are important but not urgent are second.
  • Tasks that are urgent and unimportant are third (you should delegate these).
  • Tasks that are neither urgent nor important should not even make it on the list!

4. Make Your List the Night Before

This tip is a stroke of genius from Ivy Lee. Lee knew that mornings are when people are most productive, but at the start of the day, you are most distracted by everything in your inbox. At the end of the previous day, making your list helps you hit the ground running in the morning. Lee recommended that you start task number one on your list right away. This advice came, of course, before text messaging, chat, and email that fills your electronic inboxes 24/7, which leads us to the following to-do list tip.

5. Estimate and Allocate Time for Each Task

Parkinson's Law says that work expands to take the time you give it. In other words, if you schedule an hour for a project, that is how long it will take. So, try planning a half hour. Time allocation also curbs distractions. For example, instead of diving into your inboxes first thing in the morning, schedule time to review your messages as one of the tasks on your to-do list. This time allocation method is called timeboxing, and after some experimenting, you might find that you can gradually reduce the time projects take. FYI, timeboxing was named the number one productivity hack by Harvard Business Review.

6. Do One T-Do at a Time

Multi-tasking is so 20th century. Study after study shows that multi-tasking does not work. Sorry scatterbrains, but single-tasking is the new multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is among the most researched productivity killers of our era. Negative impacts include:

  • Increase stress
  • Decreased productivity
  • Reduced cognitive function

Deep work is another term for single-tasking. Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," defines deep work as "the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task." Deep work, Newport said:

  • Accelerates learning complicated new skills.
  • It gets better work done, faster.
  • It generates a sense of meaning and fulfillment in your professional life.

7. Be Specific.

List concrete tasks that you can do in one sitting. For example, "work on competitive analysis" is not a finite task and has no "finish line." "Finalize list of competitors for competitive analysis" is concrete and doable. It does not make sense to list tasks dependent on others because you cannot control their completion. "Get manager's review of competitive analysis" is not something you can do on your own. "Submit the first draft for review" is a more doable task. 

Getting Started and Sticking with Your To-do List

Starting a new habit is tough. That first step is often the hardest one. After you begin, you will see the benefits, and it will be easier to keep going. Here are some ways to ease the transition:

  • Estimate the time for each task on your to-do list (remember Parkinson's Law above). You can write the time estimate next to the tasks. Estimating the time before you start can help you be more realistic about what you can get done during the day. 
  • Remove distractions while you work on tasks. Turn off email alerts, text and chat notifications, social media alerts, and even devices like phones to enable better focus.
  • Use "do not disturb" notifications if you have them on your chat apps.
  • Enter your work time on your shared calendar so others on your team know when you are busy.
  • Alert your colleagues. If you are going to change how and when you respond to people, let coworkers know so you can reset expectations.
  • Create some accountability and support. Find a colleague who also wants to improve their productivity with a to-do list.

Is the To-do List on Your To-do List?

No productivity method works for everyone. If, after reading this, the to-do list moved off your to-do list, other productivity systems might be a better fit. In addition to those already mentioned (timeboxing, Ivy Lee), productivity systems include:

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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

 

 

 

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