How to plan your day with a to do list
I’ve previously written about how to make an effective to do list, which you can read about here. That post focused on how to write items on the list to make sure they’re actionable, that you’re capturing an appropriate amount of detail in your list and that you’re using a consistent, reliable system.
Since then I’ve been experimenting with various formats of to do lists in my work and personal life to find the most effective way of capturing information and getting things done.
I have found that the biggest hurdle is striking the balance between capturing everything you need to do so that you can get it all out of your head onto paper and having a list you can actually work from.
For this reason I’m a big fan of creating one big ‘brain dump’ and then going back to rank and highlight items to make clear what order they should be completed in and what you should tackle on which day.
Having looked for a suitable to do list to use in my daily life I decided to create my own so that it would fit exactly what I needed. Here’s what I’ve created and I’ll explain how it works below. You can download the pdf to print for your own use here: Think on Paper to do list.
The to do List
Start your day with a scrap piece of paper and do your initial ‘brain dump’ onto the page- everything you need to get done, big and small. This will leave you with a ‘long list’ that you need to craft into an actual to do list for the day.
Once you have this long list you need to transition it into your daily planner. I’ve split the ‘to do list’ section of the list into the ‘must dos’ for the items you absolutely must get done that day and the ‘brain dump’ which is the leftovers from the long list.
Don’t go overboard with the must dos even if they are fairly small items. It doesn’t need to be in your must dos list in order to get it done today if you have the time, but if you list too many there and don’t achieve them you will start to overwhelm and demotivate yourself.
You can use the boxes either side of these two lists to colour code, rank or otherwise group and organise the items to help you get them done in the right order or at the most effective time.
I like space to rank / organise my to dos and a place to tick them off which is why I’ve added boxes at both sides of the list to use as you see fit.
End of day outcomes / key goals
One of the problems people have with to do lists is that they don’t distinguish between an item that needs doing which is actionable, and a higher level goal or outcome they’re looking to achieve. I wrote a bit about this in my previous post where I gave the example of getting a mortgage as not being an actionable enough item for a to do list; that’s the kind of item you might put as a goal or outcome (although it may not be achievable in a day!)
From your long list, pick out the three key goals for the day or outcomes you want to achieve by the end of the day. This will keep you focused on an actual outcome rather than just going through the motions of ticking off lots of random items. These key outcomes can be the result of doing your other must dos or can be other key items you want to complete.
To do tomorrow / later
If you know you have items on your long list that will need to get done tomorrow or later in the week, store them here so you can add them to your to do list for the next day.
Schedule / time blocking
In a previous post on time management I covered time blocking, here. I suggest you use this section to sketch out a brief schedule for your day using the time blocking method. It’s easy enough to do this in an online or electronic calendar like Outlook, but it’s helpful to have everything on one piece of paper for the day so you can really link together the tasks on your list and how and when you’re going to achieve them.
You can use this section to block out periods of time for when you’re going to focus on one of your tasks or a batch of them if they’re suitable to batch effectively. You can see an example of this in the completed day planner example below. I’ve colour coded these to make it clear the hours that are blocked out for that activity.
This is self explanatory! Anything you need to note down as you go through the day or any notes you need (like phone numbers, for example) in order to action your tasks, note them down here.
Why haven’t you achieved your goals?
This last step is important and you should use it to look back over the day and what you have and haven’t achieved. Did you get distracted? Procrastinate? Were you simply over-ambitious and you got overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start?
Even if you don’t always write anything in this section, it’s worth pausing to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what might have derailed you during the day. The best way to start addressing procrastination, distractions and overwhelm is to recognise them and start thinking about how you can avoid or minimise them.
The more you get into the habit of this quick bit of analysis, the more aware you are of how much you can reasonably achieve in a day and the better able you are to craft a solid to do list that results in taking steps forward each day.
Thanks for reading!