Waking up, getting ready, making a dash to work, checking emails, working on tasks and heading back home. Are you following a similar schedule where you operate on autopilot mode without taking control of your day?
When is the last time you went through your day or the week with a plan? Is it a common occurrence that your days go by working on one task after another without a concrete plan?
In this article, you will understand how to work with to-do lists for optimal productivity. Most to-do lists are long and rarely updated. This simple method will not only ensure your to-do list is small but will also ensure you complete tasks one after the other.
In the exercise, you will learn how to effectively manage your day by creating 2 simple lists. The exercise will take you through a step by step process to create these lists and keep them updated.
This article is Step 7 – Only 10% of people effectively plan their day. Do you? of 3 phase transformation into superhuman productivity. You can begin right from step 1 by accessing the index here.
To understand the purpose behind the activity I recommend you to read through the article. But, for the busy bees, you can go directly to the exercise.
- The usual flow of performing tasks
- When is a to-do list NOT a plan for the day?
- Problems of not planning your day
- Benefits of planning your day
- How to plan your day
- Working on your plan for the day
- Making a plan for the day a routine
- Stop To-Do List from growing longer
The usual flow of performing tasks
More than 75% of the people go through their day without a plan jumping from one task to another. Sometimes the day goes well and more often than not, the day is spent without working on key things. The norm is postponing them for the future, a classic case of procrastination. It is not very uncommon to end the day just remembering something that was required to be completed on that day.
Abraham Lincoln said, “If I was given 8 hours to chop a tree, I would spend 6 hours sharpening my axe.”
If you have a to-do list it does not mean you have planned your day. If all your to-do list does is help you remember one urgent task after another, you are going through the day without a plan. You must plan your day to be productive. You do not have to get into the mode of planning your day the night before. All you need is a 5-minute plan when you begin the day which aligns your to-do list with your long term goals.
Your to-do list must include tasks that have no necessity to be completed today but make progress towards your long term goals. Only then can you consider your to-do list working towards a plan.
When is a to-do list NOT a plan for the day?
Consider the two lists below.
Do you see the difference between the two? On the surface, both seem to be accomplishing a good amount of tasks. Look more closely.
You will notice that Ben’s to-do list only contains multiple urgent task tasks. None of his tasks are helping him make any progress(at least directly) towards his long term goals. Most of his tasks are on the list due to the consequences of deadlines.
Jack’s to-do list does have such urgent tasks(bullet 5,6) too. However, all of his other tasks are aimed towards his long term goal of being a writer. Along with that, he even attributes time to thinking over a solution for a long term recurring problem.
Most to-do list’s are like those of Ben. It gives an illusion that you are effective by completing one task after another.
It is an illusion of being productive because none of these tasks are helpful in the long run. Sure, they might help you get a better raise this year. But have you thought if getting a better raise year after year is your long term goal? If you have no idea what your goal is, you must define it by answering these 3 questions.
Problems of not planning your day
If you look at Jack’s to-do list, it does not have a sophisticated plan such as a priority or a specific slot to do it on. It primarily differs only by focusing on the long term by having a few critical things to work on for the day.
No to-do list can be completely devoid of urgent tasks. Things will break, the phone will ring, people will walk up to you and many of the daily tasks need your attention even if you would like to work on your long term goal. The problem is when only these tasks consume your entire day.
You will end up being completely immersed in those tasks. As a result, your long term goals will not get any attention or effort. Without the effort, your long term goals remain as is while daily routine tasks get completed. You do not feel any impact either because long term goals are very different from daily tasks.
Here are the sneakiest characteristics of your long term goals which are the exact opposites of an urgent task
- Non-Urgent: There are no consequences of not working on your long term goals. While for the urgent task, if you do not fix the bug by the deadline, you will be in trouble.
- No one follows up: Your long term goals are just your goals. No one cares about them except you. No one gives a rat’s ass if you delay them for a future date.
- Easy to postpone: Since they are neither urgent nor followed up by others, it is super easy to simply delay them to a future date. However, if you delay a daily task, you must answer someone.
In simple words, long term goals do not get worked on without a plan because they are the easiest to procrastinate and postpone.
This is why failure to plan your day leads to regret and dilution of focus. In the long term, going through the day without a plan leads to days wasted, which slowly turn into weeks, which slowly turn to months and years.
Not all to do lists can change that. Some people believe that they have it under control because they work with a to-do list. However, many of these to-do lists are lying around for a long time. They are updated rarely and sometimes go unvisited for days together. Just having a to-do list does not help. The key to having an effective to-do list is to keep it as simple as possible.
You can use a weekly planner to prepare yourself better and get more things done.
Benefits of planning your day
Before you learn how to make a simple and effective plan for the day, here are the key benefits of having one
1. You get a lot more done in a day: The power of writing down what you have to complete on that given day is beyond magical. It leads you to a subconscious awareness. It reminds you of what is pending for you on that day serving as a reminder of things to complete.
2. You will waste way lesser time: When you go by a day without a plan, you will start your day with a random task to complete. Once that task is complete, you now need to think which task should you work on next. In the meantime, you are naturally tempted to waste your time by checking your phone, going through social media, watching a random youtube video convincing yourself that it is a consolation for the task completed.
Many a time, the task completed would have taken about 15 min. The reward of wasting time for completing it by watching a video goes over 30 min before you pick up the next task. If you have a well-defined list of things to do that day, you will be inclined to pick the next task on your list as soon as possible.
3. You get a dopamine rush every time to mark one item of the list as completed: Dopamine is a chemical released by your brain which keeps you going. Be it the joy of completion of a task or the craving that pulls you for another cigarette.
Do you remember the feeling which cannot be explained in words that arises when you complete a task? It is that feeling which motivates you to pick the next one and mark it as completed. That is dopamine at play. One task leads to another leading to a snowball effect of you completing a ton of tasks by the end of the day.
4. You have no regrets at the end of the day: It is guaranteed that you would have finished the day accomplishing all or most of what you had to for the day. You will have a peaceful sleep along with a sense of satisfaction. The satisfaction of using the day well motivating you to spend the next day fruitfully again.
How to plan your day
Now that the benefits are clear, here are some tips for planning your day.
You can choose the traditional pen and paper way or you can do it on a text editor on your machine or phone. Using an app like Wunderlist or Evernote serves the purpose really well too. Personally, I use a mixture of paper and Wunderlist. The reason I still use paper is there is a divine satisfaction when you tick an item as complete on paper vs doing it on an app. You can try them both and see what works best for you.
Breaking the tasks into 2 simple lists
1. Tasks to complete today
2. Tasks pending completion
If you are using an app to do this, it is easy to move things from one section to another. If you are the pen and paper person, you can use two pages each day in a notebook, one each for the above two sections.
You start off with a blank list or paper for the day jotting down everything you believe needs to be completed for the day.
When you are doing this the first time, you will start filling the Tasks Pending Completion List first.
There is no need to have an order of tasks to work on, to set a priority or a deadline. Just write everything that you believe has to be completed on that day. Don’t try to rush through this activity in a hurry to pick a task to start working on. Spend at least 15 mins a day first thing in the morning making this list.
The key element when creating this list is to include at least 2 tasks which will make progress towards your long term goals.
Working on your plan for the day
For starters, once you have completed this list, you go through the items on your Tasks Pending Completion one by one. If the task can be completed today, you move it to Tasks to Complete Today. If not, you leave it on the Tasks Pending Completion list.
Next, you just pick one task from Tasks to Complete Today and get going. Complete it and tick it or strike it off indicating that it is complete. All you have to do is look at this list when you are done with one task. Now, you immediately have the next task to pick to work on.
At the end of the day, if you do not complete all the listed tasks there is no need to curse yourself. Instead, you should actually pat yourself on the back for the tasks that you actually completed.
If you did not manage to complete them all, do not sweat. This is exactly why the other section ‘Tasks Pending Completion’ is for. You look at the tasks which were pending today the next day.
Making a plan for the day a routine
You start the next day exactly the same way by writing down things to things that need to be done into the Tasks Pending Completion List. Again, you have to ensure you mention at least 2 tasks that make progress towards your long term goals.
At the end of it, you also take a look at your ‘Tasks Pending Completion’ list one by one. If you think that the task can be completed today, you move that to the list ‘Tasks to complete today’. If the task is not feasible to complete today, you leave it there if you are using the app. If you are using paper, you write it down on ‘Tasks pending completion’ list for today.
Now you have a rolling list of things to complete. Any new tasks that you have to work on must be added on a daily basis. Any pending tasks are still listed. They will have your attention making sure nothing slips through.
You should also include tasks that you have to repeatedly do on a daily basis to help you make progress to your long term goals. For someone aspiring to be a writer along with a full-time job, here is an example daily plan for your reference. Once you map out your day with things to focus on, you will find yourself a lot more productive.
Tasks to complete today:
- I have written for 2 hours
- I have read for 1 hour
- I have sent the analysis report to my manager
- I have spent 30 min thinking over a solution for the service bottleneck in my team
- I have posted 1 post on my Instagram Page
Tasks Pending Completion:
- I have written an email to Mr. X asking for a guest post on my blog
- I have come up with a title for my next book
- I have come with a performance appraisal plan for my team members
Of course, there are more complex ways of organizing To-Do lists. David Allen has done a fantastic job in putting it all together in his book, Getting things done. Such To-do list structures are brilliant for some and too complex for some others. I personally use some of his tips and have skipped the ones which do not work for me.
Stop To-Do List from growing longer
One of the most common problems faced with the To-Do list is over time the list keeps growing longer. Has your to-do list has grown to a length that you are scared to even look at it anymore?
Think about the problem for a moment. Can you identify the reason why your today list grew bigger and bigger in size?
You might have got your answer but in case you didn’t, let me explain why. Your to-do list is growing because you are planning more than you are doing. You need to plan no doubt, but action creates results. A wise man once said, “Vision without action is a daydream and action without vision is a nightmare.” You have to hit the sweet spot in between where you balance between planning and action. If you are planning to complete a task and not completing them on a regular basis, you have a problem to solve.
How to stop incomplete tasks from piling up your list
As human beings, we get a dopamine rush every time we complete a task. Once you get into the groove of completing tasks, you do have a tendency to keep adding tasks to the to-do list so that you can complete the task and get the dose of dopamine. It feels great, doesn’t it?
Here are a few tips to prevent making your list a piled up junk of incomplete tasks.
Identify if the task is really important:
More often than not, a lot of tasks added to the list do not need to be there. Be fierce and brutal in prioritizing. If the task does not help your goal, do not add it. If you have identified your long term goal by answering 3 questions, you know what you are chasing already. Unless the task at hand does not help you take a step closer to what you are chasing directly or indirectly, do not add the task to the list.
Do not add obvious tasks for a dopamine rush:
We love our dopamine and we want more of it. Do not add a task just for the sake of dopamine. For example, you know you check your emails and will reply back to person X. Do not add the same as a task on your to-do list. The idea must always be to keep your to-do list short.
Do not add someday items:
If a task is something you consider doing in the future, do not combine it with the other tasks needing immediate action. You cannot have “Go on a 7-day trek” and “Calculate marketing budget for the next month” on the same list. For such tasks have a separate list called ‘Someday/Maybe’. I will be talking about a more detailed approach of breaking tasks on using the simplified version of the Getting Things Done method to track your thoughts and workflow.
Write down your daily tasks separately on paper:
Most people track their things to do on an App. Along with an app, do use a notebook to write down your daily tasks. Aim to have not more than 3-4 important tasks to accomplish in a day.
You may ask isn’t it redundant to write the tasks down when the to-do list has them already? Yes, you are right. However, in spite of the redundancy, writing your goals down has a bigger dopamine rush. Also, when you write down your tasks for the day, you are forced to prioritize. Writing down increases your chances of completing tasks on time.
Sync your To-Do List with your calendar:
Adding a deadline increases your chances of completing the task. Make sure your deadline is reasonable. If you set deadlines that are too tight, you will end up with a long to-do list again. If you set a lenient deadline, you will not accomplish any tasks.
Many apps provide the feature of syncing your deadline with your calendar. For example, Wunderlist can sync the due date as an All Day event in your calendar. Do not set a time because your task will land in a time slot.
Clean your to-do list every day:
If you do not take a look at your to-do list every working day, you will never feel it’s effectiveness. Use a to-do list half-heartedly does more harm than good. If you are using your to-do list on a few days and ignore it some days, your effectiveness at completing tasks will reduce.
When you add tasks you are telling your brain that I have kept an account of the task on my list, so I will take care of it. If you fail to look at the list every day, you are only confusing your own brain.
To summarize, the purpose of this article is to help you build a simple system to keep track of your day to day tasks along with your long term goals. You do not have to come up with complex strategies to plan your day.
Do a simple breakdown of tasks to do today and those pending. It will greatly simplify the whole process and keep you well organized. Remember, an effective to do list is that which has a few key tasks to work on for the day which make progress towards your long term goals. Once you make a simple break down, the results arrive when you stick to the plan.
Without any tasks towards your long term goals, your whole to-do list becomes null and void in the long run.
Whether you follow other ways of organizing a To-do list or not, the key is to have an effective one. Which one do you think serves the better good? A complicated structure with a lot of detailing which rarely gets your attention or a simple one which you always manage to keep up to date?
Leave a comment on your method of handling your to-do list. Different people face different challenges with their tasks to complete. Some fail to start work on tasks, some tend to procrastinate, some have a list which piles up. Every scenario has a different solution. Let me know the challenge you face with handling your to-do list and I will try my best to help.
This article is Step 7 – Only 10% people effectively plan their day. Do you? of 3 phase transformation into super human productivity. You can begin right from step 1 by accessing the index here.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.