Writing effective to do lists
Most people will use to do lists to some extent or other in either their personal or working lives. They can be a great way of reducing that sense of overwhelm that comes from busy modern lives and a great way of staying goal oriented if you’re working towards a bigger goal.
But many people fail to make good use of to do lists. Either they tick off half of the items but there are some things that linger on there unfinished seemingly forever, or they write the list as a kind of aspirational guide to the week ahead but then forget about it altogether and consequently nothing is achieved.
Other major hurdles to effective list making include looking back at the list and having no idea what the task actually is or when it needs completing. Or you might write everything down and then take one look and find your motivation ebb away as you see the insurmountable stack of tasks before you.
Making a great to do list is a key part of being productive and staying focused. Making an effective list is very similar to the SMART method for goal setting where you look to make your goals Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound (although there are many versions of this acronym).
I most frequently use to do lists as a day to day personal management tool at work to make sure I capture everything I’m supposed to do and that it gets actioned on time. However, I also tend to keep a personal master list in the memo app on my phone so that during evenings and weekends I can check on the things I need or want to get done.
Here are my top five tips for creating effective to do lists that will prevent you from dropping the ball on important tasks, get more done, and -most importantly- get rid of that sense of overwhelm you have when juggling too many tasks. This is the method I use for my work to do lists- I take a slightly less methodical approach in my personal life.
You need to make your to do list items specific. There’s no need to write more than a sentence or your list will be be useless as a quick reference guide to what you should be doing, but you do need to make it clear what the action is.
When I first started working I vividly remember looking back at notes and to do lists and having no idea what I meant when I wrote it down, and therefore no idea what someone was expecting me to deliver.
It’s no good noting down something like “Phone Bob”. Phone Bob about what? By when? What crucial things do you need to get from Bob? It’s helpful to think along the lines of “who, what, when, why?” In a better example you end up with: “Phone Bob by COB today about financial projections.”
Simple as that, no need for more detail unless it’s super tricky or you think you need a memo somewhere to remember a couple of points to cover on a call. But that’s the difference between an item you can easily action and one you can’t.
Part of being specific is also breaking down tasks sufficiently so that the item is actually actionable. If you were buying a house, you probably wouldn’t put ‘get mortgage’ on your to do list, it would look more like:
- Research mortgage providers
- Make appointment with mortgage advisor
- Download payslips from online portal, etc.
You can’t action ‘get mortgage’, you need granular enough steps to complete on the way there to be able to complete the goal of getting a mortgage.
When you write a to do list make sure you take enough time to write everything down and that all new items make it onto the list. Don’t come across a new task and think ‘that’s only small, I’ll remember that’. The point of the to do list is that you don’t need to remember pointless things, they’re all stored safely somewhere for you to work through and use your brain power elsewhere.
There is one exception to this rule: the 2 minute rule. If something comes up and you can do it right then and there in less than 2 minutes, then do it and don’t bother to add it to the list. You just have to have some discipline around this- it is not a licence to let yourself become constantly distracted and keep jumping between new tasks and ideas.
At the end of the week or when I’ve filled my to do list template, I will make sure my working to do list is kept current by rolling over unfinished items onto the next list. It would be chaos to have 2 or more lists running at the same time so I always make sure I have one current list I’m working on so that things don’t get missed.
For the avoidance of doubt, when I roll items over I always make sure that everything on the defunct list has either been ticked off to mark it as complete, struck through and crossed off to show it was removed from the list (it’s ok to do this if you discover something doesn’t need to be done, or is struck through to show that it has been rolled over onto the updated list.
Not everything has or needs a deadline, but it’s worth remembering Parkinson’s law, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. The best way to get something done in a timely fashion is to set yourself a deadline.
If there is an externally imposed deadline, then make sure you note this down so that when you have your list, you can prioritise the items appropriately to suit yourself and to keep to your deadlines.
Even where there are no immediate deadlines you may still wish to prioritise the items either because they’re important or because there are dependencies with other items. I’ll often do this with a highlighter pen or by circling the number of the task with a different coloured pen. Or you can simply add space on the template you use for your list to add a priority number of other code. It’s totally up to you and sometimes prioritisation isn’t needed at all, or only becomes an issue later on in the week, at which point you can go back and rank or highlight priority items.
It’s not always the case that tasks are either complete or incomplete as it might turn out that it takes more than one step to get it done once you try to complete it. If I’ve half actioned something I will make sure I update that item with my progress so I don’t have to wonder where I got to with it (when I’m really busy, it does happen). For example, if I need to get certain information, when I’ve sent the email or left the voicemail requesting the information I’ll drop a note in a different coloured pen next to the item to say who I reached out to and when.
This is something I never used to do because I felt it spoiled the feeling of order and neatness with my to do lists, but this is all about finding the system that works for you and I found that to really get everything out of my head and onto paper, I needed to track my progress, even for seemingly small actions.
Once you’ve got a system you need to use is consistently to see results. If you’re not consistent about producing, updating and reviewing your to do list, things will get missed, tasks won’t get completed and goals won’t be reached. Consistency relates to two key issues: consistency in actually using list, and consistency in the approach that you take to producing and using it.
Depending on how many items typically make it onto your list in a day or a week or a month, you should look to develop a habit of reviewing and adding to it at a frequency that makes sense for you.
I usually add to a list in my notebook until each line of the page is filled, and then if I need to add more, I start a new one and roll over unfinished items onto the next list. It’s an arbitrary way to do it, but it works for me, especially as my tasks will often have longer deadlines than a week ahead, so there’s no sense me automatically rolling items over onto a new list just because a new week has started.
So, I lied, there are actually 6 steps. This is the most important but usually the most overlooked. As with most things in life, the best approach is the one that works for you. You could be using the most tried and tested system and getting no results because it doesn’t work for you. If it doesn’t serve you, don’t use it.
The best way to come up with an effective system for making to do lists is to keep using them and experimenting until you find a system that makes sense to you. If you don’t seem to be able to adapt to using a system then it won’t help you, you need to find something that can become second nature to you over time so you’re not spending pointless time and effort using a system that isn’t bringing you results.