Do you remember when you first started using to-do lists? You installed an app and listed out the tasks you had to finish.
The list remained neat and helpful for the first few weeks. Over time, things started adding up. You had new tasks to complete, but the previous ones remained pending. As time went by, the list grew longer and longer like the neck of a baby giraffe. Today, your list contains so many tasks that looking at the pending items makes you anxious.
But here’s the kicker. You can make your to-do list smaller and effective with minor changes. In this article, I will cover:
- The common problems with to-do lists
- 5 tips to managing lists the right way
Common Problems with to-do lists
Today, due to the number of tasks on your to-do list, you face two problems:
1. Too many things to do
The list is now your nightmare simply because of its length. The app which helped you get things done has become a reason for procrastination. The sheer thought of the number of incomplete tasks makes you push work even further.
Besides, because the list is too long, you miss a few tasks which needed your attention.
2. Can’t pick a task to work on
On any given day, you find yourself struggling to pick the right task to work on. “Let me work on …,” you tell yourself. As you scan through the rest of the list, you notice another important task. “Damn, I should complete that first,” you slam your palm on your forehead.
But the cycle never ends. When you have too many things to finish in limited time, prioritizing the right tasks becomes the real challenge.
How to manage to-do lists the right way
So how to manage to do list and make them effective? Here are 5 tips which will help.
1. Divide your lists
A common mistake people commit is using one single list to manage all their tasks. At best, you might split personal and professional duties separately. But using just one list or two does not help your case.
What would you prefer looking at? A list that has 50 tasks or 5 lists with 10 tasks each? The answer is obvious.
You must break down your to-do list into different sections. Having separate lists makes them more manageable and easy to scan through. You will not feel overwhelmed knowing what’s on your plate.
An effective way of breaking lists was suggested by David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done. As per the technique, you must segregate your tasks into 4 sections – Need action, Waiting for, Someday, Reference material.
- Need action: These are the tasks which need your effort like buying the grocery.
- Waiting for: These are the tasks that you cannot complete yourself until you receive a reply, input, or action from another person.
- Someday/Maybe: Sometimes, you come up with tasks that you aren’t sure about completing. For example, you feel like reorganizing the furniture in the hall, but you haven’t decided yet. Such tasks fall under the maybe category.
- Reference material: Many of us have the habit of noting things down within the to-do list itself. It might be a document reference number or a brilliant idea that just flashed inside your head. All such entries go into this list,
When you segregate tasks into sections like the above, you will only have to go through the list which needs your action. The clutter created by tasks waiting for a reply, random ideas, and uncertain plans go out the window.
The GTD method of segregating is only a direction to split lists. Feel free to add your own ideas to divide your lists to suit your needs. Do not make the mistake of creating too many lists because you will have to juggle between lists to find what’s pending. Around 4-6 lists work best.
2. Have a list of easy things to do
Throughout the day you will find small time windows between your tasks. For example, once you finish the job you were working on, you might have 10 minutes before a meeting begins. That free time ends up being a reason to peek into your phone to read random group messages or checking what your friends are up to on Instagram.
Listing out a set of simple things to do helps you use such filler time to get work done. You can reply to emails, make those quick phone calls, or order groceries online. When such tasks are added along with your other to-do items, finding them becomes a challenge in itself.
When you only have 10 minutes to spare, digging through your to-do list and trying to find a simple task isn’t very motivating. The effort required to find a task becomes a reason to procrastinate. Instead, if you segregate the little tasks into a separate list, you can quickly pull it out, pick a job or two and get going.
3. Have a mini-plan for the day
Writing your goals down creates the magic of getting things done. No matter how close apps come to real pen and paper, you cannot compare the dopamine rush you receive when you complete a task by striking it off the sheet.
Your to-do list app on your phone cannot produce the same feeling.
When you have a long list of tasks on your to-do list, you will face decision paralysis while picking a task. Every morning go through your to-do list and pick 5-8 important tasks to work on. Write it down on a notepad and leave it on your table. That little list is your plan for the day.
Planning your day early and writing it down helps you streamline your focus like a vulture who has set its eyes on the target.
Once you have written down what to focus on for the day, keep the notepad around you with the page open. Do not leave the notebook closed or out of sight. The more the notepad lies within your line of view, the more determined you will be to complete the tasks listed. The written list serves as a reminder at any point.
Though I have repeated targets each day, I still write them down every day. For example, I have set myself a daily goal of writing 2000 words. After I complete each task, I add a tick mark on the task to indicate I am done. I have found myself meeting my targets more often when I write them down.
4. Break tasks down
The lazy demon inside us prefers writing down tasks on the to-do list in the shortest possible way. You tend to write a set of tasks as one single entry on the list. For example, if you want to start a blog, listing the task as ‘Start a blog’ is a terrible idea.
To set up your blog, you need to think of a name, purchase hosting, choose some themes, and get the website ready. Writing a whole project as one task implies it will remain open for a long time. Besides, the magnitude of such a task might scare you from taking the first step itself.
Instead, break a significant job into smaller tasks. Instead of jotting down the task as ‘Start a blog,’ list down all the little steps as individual tasks:
- Buy a domain
- Purchase hosting space
- Shortlist appropriate themes
- Think of 5 article ideas
- Write the first article
Sure, you will have more tasks on your list, but they won’t remain open for a long time. Also, completing little tasks serves as the much-required momentum to keep the project moving.
5. Clean up lists
What will you do when you have too many things in your hall? Simple, you clean it up. If not, the house gets cluttered and becomes challenging to manage. You also ensure you tidy up your house often because the longer you postpone the job, the harder it gets.
Likewise, your to-do lists need regular cleaning too. Sometimes you will forget marking a task as complete or an item may no longer need to be there.
Scanning through all your lists and tasks once in a week helps you maintain a healthy structure and count. It will hardly take 15 minutes but will make your life a lot easier. One of the to-do list best practices is to keep the length as short as possible and cleaning up lists makes that happen.
Consider your to-do list as a car that needs servicing now and then. How well you maintain it determines how smoothly it will run.
A to-do list does not make you productive by itself. Often, it can make things worse. Just a few simple effective to-do list techniques can make all the difference between getting things done and postponing work for the next day.
When it comes to productivity, the little things create a more considerable impact than any complicated techniques. A well-handled to-do list can help you breeze through your tasks, and a poorly handled one can give you sleepless nights.
Which one will you choose?
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.