Successful “To-Do” List Hacks

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Well “good morning” first official work week of 2016. I’ve got my sights set on making you the best year yet. I’ve chosen my anthem for the year that supports my goals and aspirations for kicking butt and taking names in the next 365 days. And while that is cool and provides a ton of motivation, I’m going to have to break my goals down into bite sized chunks if I am going to be able to manage them in a way that keeps me from pulling all of my hair out or crawling into the fetal position on my office floor from overwhelm.

So, what’s a girl need to do to make that happen? If you are anything like me, you reach for your new, clean, shiny, and empty planner or “to-do” list that holds all the promise of a productive and satisfying new year. Then you start making lists. And more lists. And more lists. And before you know it, you have an huge, itemized account of everything that you can possibly think of to make this year great and it’s so long and overwhelming that you decide it’s not really worth the effort and you give up before you even get started. Or, you dive into the list with great resolve only to end up discouraged and beaten because there is no way to get it all done.

Now, there are a million different discussions that can come at this point. But this is not intended to be a discussion about proper goal setting, saying “no”, how to be realistic, or the Pareto Principle. This is intended to give you a couple of easy hacks for recording and staying on top of your properly developed “to-do” list. Here are a couple of the tricks that I use to manage my “to-do” list.

  1. Have a long term view and a daily view.

I have found that if I keep my master “to-do” list combined with my daily “to-do” list I can become very overwhelmed because of the number of items on my list. Just because I write something on my master list does not mean that it needs to be done right away. But I need to write it down so that I won’t forget it.

I’ve fixed this issue by keeping the two lists separate. I have a master list on my desk at all times. Whenever I think of something else that I need to do, I write it on my master. Then I have a separate list for my daily “to-dos”. My daily list is built by pulling things off of my master list as appropriate and as they align with my goals.

My master list tends to be more work focused but can contain certain items like home/car maintenance or improvements, scheduling personal appointments, etc.

In addition to my master and daily lists, I also have a weekly overview that breaks my efforts down into categories so that I know I’m spending the right amount of time working on the right areas of my personal and professional life. This weekly overview is also used to help drive the creation of my daily list, which I will talk about more in item 3.

2. Build your list by categorizing tasks as projects, recurring items, and “less than 15 minute” items.

A big mistake that I see friends and clients make when creating their list is writing a project down on their “to-do” list without breaking it down into smaller chunks. If the project cannot be done in a single day then don’t write “XYZ Presentation” down on your daily “to-do” list. More than likely a project like this will take several steps. For instance, you may need to research your topic for the presentation, write the presentation, create the visuals, and proof all of the above. So, I keep my projects and all of their sub-tasks on my master list and only move the sub-tasks over to my daily list. This tactic keeps large projects from appearing to hang around on my daily list every day without any progress and allows me to celebrate progress by checking off each sub-task I successfully complete.

My master list also contains items that are recurring (daily, weekly, monthly) and items that I feel I can accomplish in less than 15 minutes. Noting recurring items makes it easy to determine things that must be included in the current day’s list and keeping a list of things that can be done in a few short minutes is great way to plug in productivity when you have a few extra minutes on your hands.

Bonus hack – don’t forget to include non-work/job/career related items on your list. Including both work and non-work related items on one list make everything easier to manage and keeps things from falling through the cracks.

3. Start each day with a clear vision.

Having a good sense of what you need to work on every day will make building your daily list easier. As I mentioned earlier, I also have a weekly overview of where I need to spend my efforts. I have spent time understanding what types of activities I need to spend time on to reach my professional and personal goals and have divided my work week effort into categories. I know that for my efforts to be productive and for me to feel accomplished each week, I need to spend X% of my time each week working with clients, X% of time developing new services, X% of time on marketing activities, X% of time on personal and professional development, etc.

The creation of my daily list starts with any recurring items that are due that day. Next, I move to my weekly effort overview. If I know I need to spend time on marketing and service development that day, then I will pull items off of my master list that fall into those categories. Then I fill the rest of my time with 15 minute items.

Bonus hack – limit your daily list to your top three items you absolutely have to get done that day. Having more than that on your list is unreasonable depending upon the amount of time you need to complete those items and you will only feel defeated if you aren’t able to get to the other items. Some days I only have one thing on my list if I know it’s going to take a lot of focus and concentration to get it done correctly. If you get your one to three really important things done pretty quickly, then you can always move on to your 15 minute items and knock a bunch of those out or you can go grab a few more things off of your master list.

4. Celebrate!

I have friends that make fun of my check boxes and the way I meticulously fill them in when I complete something on my list but I think they are just jealous. It is important to celebrate accomplishments, no matter the size. Heck, I even write things down on my list that I accomplished before creating my list that day just so that I can check them off. It makes me happy and keeps me motivated. Whatever keeps you going, do it!

Bonus Hack – find a tool that best suits the way you work. There are a lot of apps available to help you manage your “to-do” lists. This 2014 article from lifehacker.com lists five of the most popular “to-do” list managers. If you are more of a paper and pen kind of person like I am, the number of tactile planners and lists out there are limitless. After years of using pre-designed planners I’ve started making my own because I find that my approaches to my list management and my mood changes over time and this gives me the ability to change my tool whenever I want. To see some examples of the ones I use, please feel free to visit the free resource page of my website to download a copy of my Productivity Plan templates.

Staying on top of your “to-do” list is a critical part of keeping some sanity in your life. You can’t manage what you don’t write down. Writing down your “to-do” list allows you to measure progress, stay motivated, and help to keep you accountable. I would love to hear how you keep your “to-do” list manageable. Please leave a comment below sharing your “to-do” list hacks.

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