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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Make your To-Do List Doable

You Are the Boss of You
Have you ever started a to-do list, only to let it build dust until you scrap it completely? It is easy to let a whole day or week go by without marking off a task on your list, but why? The answer lies in your technique: How you write it and treat it. A To-Do list can be a tool that guides you through your work, or it can be a field of land-mines taunting you and your unproductive inadequacy. 

Done the right way, To-Do lists can be one of the most satisfying things in the world, providing you with a visual representation of your recent productivity and accomplishments as you check off your completed tasks. 

Below we detail 10 tips to staying on track with your to-do list, to help you push your career, education, and life forward. 

Refer to our previous post for further tips on keeping a daily planner.

  • Note: These tips are some of the most helpful things I have learned (I used to be horribly disorganized and failed at making to-do lists in the past). So if you're in a similar situation, take the time to read them and put them into practice - it can make a huge difference.

10 Tips to Making your To-Do List Doable:
  1. Put yourself into Boss mode. When you make a to-do list, you are giving orders to yourself, which your Assistant-self will later pick up and do. Taking the thinking out of acting is one of the best ways to make your to-do list doable. So give yourself instructions that reduce your amount of thinking and planning.

    All the rest of these tips revolves around this point - YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOU.

  2. Break It Down. What is the quickest way to actively avoid working on a task? Make it a vague monstrosity. Put a nonspecific item like “Clean the house” or “Get in shape” on your to-do list and I guarantee it is the last thing you will ever start. These are examples of projects, and projects are NOT tasks, they are a collection of tasks.

    If you have projects or goals, use a separate list to map them out and break them into smaller subtasks. Then, add those broken down, easier-to-tackle subtasks to your to-do list. For example, rather than start off with "Clean the apartment," you would break it down into tasks such as “Dust my room,” “Vacuum,” “Throw away garbage,” “Organize Closet,” or “Box up unneeded books to sell.”

    The smaller and more focused the subtasks, the more doable they are. 

    Don'ts (vague, roadblocks)
    Do's (Doable, Focused Tasks)
    Work on project
    Draft list of tasks to do for Sociology project
    Change bank accounts
    Call Derp bank @ 555-7979, ask how to change accounts
    Replace broken window
    Measure window dimensions. Call Derpity Glass at 555-5858 w/ dimensions
    Find place to fix car
    Text Mike, ask what local car shop he goes to.
    Make appointment to fix car
    Call Derp Shop at 555-5959 for break replacement
    Learn Italian
    Lookup Italian courses for winter quarter @

  3. Focus on the Next Action Only! When you have a multi-action task – such as replacing a window or doing a project – keep only its next course of action on your to-do list. When this task is complete, refer to your project list, cross that action off, and add the next one to your to-do list.
    • Pro-Tip: Imagine you have 10 minutes before class starts, and you pull out your to-do list. Can you learn Italian or find a place to get your car fixed? No. But you can look up courses for winter quarter, text your friend about where to get your car fixed, or call to make an appointment. Bam! Cross another item off.
  4. Use Specific, Active Verbs. Remember, when you tell yourself to do something, make it an order. An item like “Car needs fixing” doesn’t tell you what has to be done. Make your to-do’s specific actions, such as “Text Mike, ask what local car shop he recommends.” Notice I said Text, instead of Contact. Contact could mean phone, email, text, or IM, but when you take out all the thinking and leave in only action, your verbs will create simpler tasks to accomplish.

  5. Keep Your List Short. Keep your signal-to-noise ratio low to avoid information overload. Just as no one wants to look at 1,340 emails in their inbox, no one wants to see 100 tasks on their to-do list either. Giving yourself too many will make you feel overwhelmed and create a roadblock to your productivity. Instead, keep your list under 20 items.

    Remember this isn’t a dumping ground for project details or “Someday I’d like to…” items. It also isn’t your calendar, though you might use items from these to update your tasks. Your to-do list should consist of short, to-the-point commitments you will be completing in the near future – say in the next week or two at most.

  6. Prioritize Your Tasks. This is self-explanatory. Put the most important at top; color code for more urgent items or based on type of task.

  7. Keep Your List Moving. Every day you should be checking off a couple of items or tasks, and then replacing them with new ones.

  8. Update Your List Weekly. What items have been on your list the longest? Chances are you have mental road block around tasks that have been collecting dust. These need to be reworded (see #4), broken down further (see #2) or deleted from your list.

    You should schedule a 20-minute meeting with yourself every Friday or Monday to review your to-do list, project list, and someday/maybe list. Use this time to further break down items, purge irrelevant tasks, and move next actions from your project to your to-do list.

  9. Keep Your Old Tasks. Your “done” list is a great indicator of whether your to-do list is working. You may also have important information that you could use at a later time here.

  10. Practice Makes Perfect. This is a pretty detailed, long list of guidelines for something as simple as making a to-do list. But 90% of the work involved in mastering something – whether a sport, an instrument, or tackling tasks – involves a combination of habitual practice and the honing of technique. As with any good habit, practice makes perfect, and the more you practice the art of creating effective to-do lists, the faster and easier it will come to you.

Note: The concepts and tips from this hack draw on those discussed in Adam Pash and Gina Trapani’s book, Lifehacker: The Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, and Better, 3rd edition, 2011. I highly recommend checking it out for many more helpful life hacks.