Build A Better To-Do List
Updated: May 28
I love a good to-do list. I love the whole process of writing it down neatly, with little boxes waiting to be checked once it gets done. I love the feeling I get when I have completed something. But I realize that not everyone approaches life's to-dos with such glee. Keeping up with our lives and the lives that we are responsible for is hard work. And whether we have a list or not, love aside, life still proceeds. Effective to-do lists can be the difference between doing, or not.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says "how we schedule our days is how we spend our lives." And she is exactly right. Our days, full of activities and events, tasks big and small, and plenty of unscheduled time as well, collectively will become what we call our life. And when we think about it that way, it becomes awfully hard to justify approaching each day without any sense of honorable commitment to how we spend our time. Time is precious. More precious than money because we can't make more of it, yet we find it wasted when we don't effectively do what we want to do each day. And I'm not here for any arguments about how much time it takes to make a list. I know full well that we waste far more time when we don't have a list, or at least a strategy. So, keep these things in mind when you put together your next to-do list:
1. Think of your list as Want to not Must do. Remember - you don't have to do anything. Surely, I have to work? Nope. You WANT to work because you don't want to be homeless. But you don't have to work. Everything we fill our days with can be thought of as a want to as opposed to an obligation. I don't have to go to the grocery store. I want to, because I want my family to have a healthy dinner tonight. I don't have to see the doctor rather, I want to, because I don't want to worry about my shoulder pain any longer. When you see that your tasks for the day are actually a list of wants it becomes a bit easier to tackle them in turn.
2. Know your WHY. When we reconnect with the purpose of the activity in the first place, we are much more likely to be motivated to act. So if "Clean the kitchen" is the task at hand, add your why and it reads "Clean the kitchen for hosting friends tomorrow." That is much more meaningful. There should be a reason you are doing everything on your list so connect with it fully. Can't find a why? Maybe it is not a task you should be spending your precious time worrying about. When all is said and done it is your day. Your reason for doing what you do with your day and your time should be crystal clear.
3. Break down large projects into smaller, workable parts. Writing down projects to tackle on your daily task list is a big mistake. You usually do not have time during any given day to complete an entire project. So break it down into smaller tasks that are spread out throughout the week or month. I never put down CLEAN THE HOUSE on my daily list. That is a project, even for my relatively tidy home. If I want the house clean by the weekend, I might start with bed linens and laundry piles on Monday, mopping floors and bathroom on Tuesday, kid toy organization and emptying the hallway nook of mail clutter on Wednesday, etc. Each day I can do something that gets me closer to completing the ultimate goal of having a clean home for visitors on the weekend.
4. Assign a deadline that is both narrow and realistic. Don't give yourself two hours to catch up on emails when you know that with focused attention you could do it in one. And don't only leave yourself 30 minutes to workout if you know that including a shower, it takes more like an hour. Remember that we are very prone to fill whatever time we allow so things that are potentially 15 minute tasks balloon into 45 minute ones if we give ourselves the extra minutes. Establishing time windows is not meant to force you into a game show worthy dash for the buzzer; it is designed to keep you honest about how you are choosing to use your minutes and allow you a reasonable way to start the process of holding yourself accountable for how you spend your time.
5. Use action verbs. This seems like a silly thing to point out but it matters. I will CALL the IRS, CLEAN the stove, TYPE the PTA leadership list, CHOOSE which recipes to cook - that puts the ball in my court with my actions generating the completion of items on my list. A list that just bullet points things with no action is less motivating. Action requires me, and I can more clearly see that when I write it down and take into account what it is actually going to take from me to get it done.
6. Adopt a power hour strategy. What, you may ask, is a power hour? It is time set aside once per week to motor through some of the little stuff that tugs at the fringes of our memory and energy. Here's how it works: Keep a running list of the small stuff to tackle that pop up every now and again. At your predetermined power hour time, set a timer and get going on those little things. It doesn't matter how many, or how fast. Just grab one and get started. It is your one hour to tackle several items that are neither important nor urgent that still need to get done at some point. Examples of things on my power hour include ordering the special light bulb that is blown out on the back porch, changing the batteries in my son's toy, purging the old dish towels, scheduling the piano tuner. It is a pretty long and messy list of randomness, but do what you can, and then you put the list away until the next power hour rolls around. Make it fun and add music. Make it a challenge and try to get more than 5 things completed. Every moment of every day is not going to be productive, but your power hour should be.
7. Prune your list. Lists that are too long make us feel like we are behind before we have even started. Keep the little stuff off your list that usually gets done (i.e. make beds. The exception here is if you are trying to build a new habit of making the bed and you need the daily reminder to get to it, then it can stay.) Be sure to take off the items that will only serve as distractions for you as you avoid doing something that might actually be more urgent. I would love to read another chapter in my book, but there is no way I'm writing that down for today when I know I want to also study some text for my next blog post. I might still read the chapter, but I don't need to add it to a list.
8. Maintain it daily or weekly. What is the point of writing things down if you aren't even going to bother reviewing it? Find a way to give your list more than a passing glance at some point before you dive in to making a new one. I end my day with my list, because that is also when I download my thoughts for the following day. I never berate myself for not getting something done. And I always congratulate myself for what did get done, no matter how small. Maintaining your list gives you an opportunity to see and enjoy how you spent your life for that one lovely day on the planet.
9. Accept external factors. There are many instances when you getting something crossed off your list is dependent on something else taking place. Getting taxes turned in may be dependent on the arrival of a W-2. Finishing the organization in the laundry room depends on that shelf getting installed. Fine. Take all of the action you can minus that final piece. Make sure the missing components are in progress and set a deadline. Then let it go. For example, I'm waiting for the last W-2 that got lost in the shuffle. Taxes are due. I will call the company to request another copy. I will collect all of my other paperwork. I will set a date next week to either follow-up again if the W-2 is still missing or to finish my taxes with the missing W-2 in hand. All of my other tasks that I have control over related to taxes will be done. I will not leave "do taxes" on my daily lists because it is not up to just me to do. Accepting external factors is about getting everything done that is in my control, setting the conditions for the missing pieces to be completed, and moving on without the worry.
10. Be consistent. Don't allow the snowball effect of inaction to prevent you from making daily progress. And don't wait to find your motivation to take action. Action leads to motivation, not the other way around. Find a system for tracking and documenting your goals that works for you and stick with it. Try something else if what you have started makes it more difficult for you to feel productive. The best way you can tell if your system is working is if you are working. A to-do list that produces little checks in more than a few of your little boxes is probably working. One that sits there gathering dust until you write everything down again on Monday is probably not working. There are no rules so create a system that works for you.
*This post is a summary of topics I discuss in my Get It Done Workshop