Since the beginning of time, people have had to-do lists. Not always written down, but I’m sure even the neanderthals had an idea of the things they had to do on any given day.
We’ve developed a lot since then (thank god), but the to-do list has stayed strong, and we are still using them in this day and age.
So recently I was scrolling around on the internet, wasting some time, while every other article screamed at me to be more productive. It was a bit overwhelming, but it got me thinking.
I think we all love the feeling of being productive. Getting our things done, feeling accomplished and satisfied at the end of the day, it gives our dopamine levels a good run for their money.
I feel productive when I cross things off my to-do list. It gives me the best feeling while I’m doing it, but it feels even better at the end of the day when I manage to tick everything off.
I realised it was time to learn how to write a great to-do list, so I got started straight away. Today I am sharing what I learned with you. So here are my 11 tips to write a great to-do list and become insanely productive.
Why you should have a great to-do list
You won’t forget.
This one is almost too obvious, but it’s still the most important reason.
In this time where we’re surrounded by modern technology and digital distractions 24/7, it’s very easy to get lost in them. Depending on your age, you might have noticed that the more you started using them, the faster our minds seem to forget about things.
They got lost in the chaos, and that’s okay.
Keeping a to-do list will keep you focused on your tasks, and make sure you fulfil your potential.
Calm our minds.
Naturally, our minds focus on the tasks that need to be done. Even if you only have a handful of them, that takes a lot of mental capacity. Most of us have more than 5 things that need to be done, so imagine how that works out.
It calms the mind, and takes the pressure off. It tricks your brain into thinking you’ve already done them.
Now, it doesn’t have to remind you of these tasks anymore, so you can use your newly freed brainpower to focus on accomplishing these tasks instead.
If you’re sharing with others, everyone knows what’s going on and what needs to happen. This counts especially on big projects, or household to-do lists. It’s easy to glance at the list and see what needs to be done or has already been done, which will help everything run a bit smoother.
If I love anything in life, it’s reducing my stress levels.
I like feeling calm, and waking up in the middle of the night thinking “I haven’t sent that important email I was supposed to send yesterday!” doesn’t help with that.
Writing all your things on your to-do list will help prevent these situations, and make sure you get the important things done so you can relax more.
When we are more efficient at work, we can get our things done in a shorter time frame, which means more downtime!
A to do list can definitely help you work more efficiently as you don’t have to think about what needs to be done or next, because you’ve planned it out before you got started.
As you’ll also read later, a great to-do list will help you stay motivated to do your work, which also helps get things done faster.
Keep you on track of bigger things.
Keeping a great to-do list will help you stay on top of big projects or goals.
By writing down all the steps, you’re reducing your chances of getting distracted and allows you to better focus on your ultimate goals.
If you don’t write them down, you might get distracted by busywork or completely different projects.
Writing a great to-do list will definitely help you achieve these big goals.
The secrets of a great to-do list
First things first: you have to actually commit to your to-do list. You can implement all the tips and tricks you want, but if you don’t commit, there’s no point.
Only 41% of to-do lists are finished, and that’s a lot of unfinished business and unfulfilled potential.
1. Make it clear.
Whatever you’re writing on your to-do list, make it clear and detailed.
A great to-do list has what you should be doing, but should also includes details like when, where or with whom. So don’t write; ‘Car’. Write; ‘change the oil of the car’. Or ‘get the car washed at [address]’.
Make it easier for yourself to do the tasks by making them detailed. If you only write ‘car’, then later you might have forgotten what it was, so you have to think about what it was about the car that you had to do, and that is simply wasting time.
Set yourself up for success, and be clear about your tasks.
2. Write your ultimate goal for the day on top.
Write the big thing you’re working on. Then, write the smaller steps underneath.
Now every time you see your list, or check off something you did, you’ll be reminded of that big goal you’re working towards.
Science has shown that this makes us more productive, and less likely to waste our time on other things.
3. Break it down into smaller tasks.
Break your tasks down to the point where it’s almost embarrassing if you don’t do them. Make it as easy as possible for yourself to accomplish these things.
Instead of; study for … test. Write “read chapter …”. “Take notes of chapter …”, “make flashcards for chapter …” etc.
Not only will it help you get started, but it will also make you more flexible as you can work with smaller time blocks, and there is still that sense of satisfaction in crossing things off.
4. Prioritize your tasks
There are things that are going to make a bigger difference than others, and they need to be on top of your to-do list. Spend most of your time on the big things, and fit the smaller ones in those little pockets of time, or dedicate part of your time to those small things.
For example, you can set apart one day of the week to do the smaller things, or perhaps one afternoon if that’s enough for you. This also means you don’t have to waste time thinking about what should be your next task, as you’ve already figured that out!
One way of prioritizing your tasks is following the 1/3/5 principle. You pick one big task you want to get done and put that in the number one priority. Then you pick 3 smaller things you’d like to do as well. Finally, you can pick up to 5 things to do if you have the time. Make sure you are realistic about the time and remember you’re not obliged to actually pick 9 things.
Another way is with the Eisenhower matrix. You’ve probably seen it before but if not, it’s basically a way to organize your tasks in important/urgent, important/not urgent, not important/urgent, and not important/not urgent.
The important/urgent tasks should be your main priority and should be done as soon as possible.
Important/not urgent are tasks to schedule. Decide when you’re going to do them.
Not important/urgent should be delegated if possible.
The tasks that are not important/not urgent should be eliminated. Why are they on your list if they’re not important or urgent? If they don’t help you towards your goal, they need to go.
5. Be realistic.
Figure out exactly how long something should take you, then add a margin for distractions. The 21st century reality is that distractions are everywhere, and it’s hard to close yourself off completely.
Time-blocking also helps you not overload your day. If you only have 8 hours, it doesn’t make much sense to schedule 12 hours of work.
Personally, I love when I schedule a bit more time than it should take, as it motivates me to do things within their normal time limit so I can finish my list earlier and make a start on tomorrow’s list, or have more free time.
6. You can always change your to-do list.
In fact, you’re probably going to have to.
No matter how organized we want to be, surprises always pop up and it’s good to be flexible. It’s okay to change the priorities and add or lose something if necessary.
It’s a good idea to go back to your to-do list after lunch, and see whether anything has changed. Have any unexpected tasks come up? Have you spent most of your time on the most important thing, or maybe you’ve already finished it?
Take a minute to see if anything needs to be adjusted, so you can be just as productive in your afternoon as you were in the morning.
7. Supercharge your to-do list: if/then
One big difference between a good to-do list and a great to-do list is adding timings to tasks. Not only plan what you’re going to do, but also when you’re going to do them.
Too often we think we don’t have enough time, but in reality we waste a lot of time or we don’t make use of pockets of time. If you have 15 minutes before you have to go somewhere, how often do you pick up your phone and scroll Instagram instead of using that time to tick something off your to-do list? I know it happens to me, a lot.
Use if/then to say: If I have to wait for something, then I will vacuum the floor/send an e-mail/make that phone call.
You wouldn’t believe the number of vocab words I learnt by standing in line for the cash register.
8. Focus on good habits.
Again, the if/then system. Use it to replace bad habits with better ones, and improve your productivity tenfold. Research has also shown that replacing bad habits is much more efficient than trying to not have them. So if you always snack on chips, it’s way better to say; ‘if i crave chips, I will get myself a fruit-snack’,
9. Write a ‘done’ list.
Whether your accomplishments are big or small, take a moment to be happy you finished them. It can help put the things you didn’t get done in perspective.
That one thing you didn’t do doesn’t weigh up against the 5 things you did do, right?
Writing this list will boost motivation for the next day, and helps you ‘close off’ the working day from your free evening. Tomorrow’s a new day, with a new list for you to finish.
10. Figure out what works for you
Maybe you’re someone who colour coordinates everything. Maybe you prefer paper, or digital? It doesn’t matter what your preferences are, but work with them.
I work much better with a to-do list on paper as I can put it next to me on my desk, easily refer to it, and I find it much more satisfying to really cross things off instead of clicking my mouse.
11. Review your to-do list once a week.
Figure out the tasks that you’ve been postponing and why.
Are they not important? Are they too big? What is the reason you haven’t done them yet?
If they are actually important, put them on top of your list for your next workday. If they’re not a priority, see if you can delegate them to someone else, or whether you can put them on a list for later.
I hope I’ve helped you uncover some secrets of a great to-do list, and you’ll be a bit more excited to go back to work, armed with this new knowledge. If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading my 9 tips to be more productive, or my post on setting goals.