How to Make Your To-Do List Actually Do-able

I first recognized that I might have a slight obsession with lists when a friend of mine caught me making a "list of lists" during an excruciatingly boring class in undergrad.  Lists are a great way to organize messy thoughts and ideas in a more coherent way, and they are also a great tool for getting little things out of our heads to make space for more important things.  However, even thought I loved lists, I found that they weren't that helpful for me in tracking my to-do items.   I would make a list and use it for a while, but then something about it would start annoying me and I would put it aside.  

When I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, it suddenly became clear why my lists weren't working for me.  It wasn't that I shouldn't make lists, or that I was not a good list-manager.  It was that I was going about things the wrong way.  Here are some tips, many of which come from Getting Things Done.  

Use the format that works best for you.

There are so many great tools and apps and planners out there.  It can quickly get overwhelming, and there is a temptation to keep trying new things instead of figuring out what's not working about the current tool.  

The best approach is to find a tool that will be able to fit your needs for at least the next six months or so, and then really commit to using that tool.  It doesn't matter if it's elegant or cool or what everyone else is using.  If Post-It notes work for you and you're likely to actually use them, then forget about all those smartphone apps.  If there's an app that's basic but has an interface that you find really appealing, then that is what you should use.  

Basically, you want a to-do list that you like looking at (regardless of what's on it).  I don't like paper lists because it bugs me to have scratched-out things intermixed with non-scratched-out things.  That means my options are to rewrite my list every few days (not terribly efficient) or use an electronic list.  So, I use an app.

Only put things you *will* do on your to-do list.

I'm a big believer in simplicity and streamlining, so I thought that it was important to have just one list for to-dos.  That way, everything is in one place.  Sounds logical, right?  Well, the problem with that is that my "one list to rule them all" had a mix of items on it.  Some of them were critical tasks that absolutely, positively had to get done, some were big projects, some were random ideas, and an embarrassing number were things I'd like to do but realistically didn't have time or energy for.  This meant that my to-do list wasn't a list of tasks so much as it was just a brain dump of randomness.  Not helpful!  Here's what a do-able to-do list looks like:

  • Each item starts with a verb, and that verb is specific.  Not "arrange" but "search calendar."  Not "contact" but "call."  Many times, things linger on our list because we still need to decide what it is we actually want to do about that thing.  
  • Each item can be done in an hour or less.  If not, break it down into parts.
  • Each item should be completed in the next few weeks.  If not, break it down into parts or put it on an "On Hold" list.
  • Each item is a single task.  "Celebrate Mom's birthday" and "Hire new analyst" are projects, not tasks, and they should be on your projects list, not your tasks list.

Use separate lists for things that you want to keep track of that are not tasks.

One of my favorite things about the GTD methodology is the use of the "Waiting For" and "Someday/Maybe" lists.  These lists, which might not be lists at all but folders in your e-mail or  on your desk, are for parking things that are not things that you need to do right now but that you don't want to forget about.  Since your task list should only have things on it that you can and should be doing, the Waiting For list is great for tracking things that you need from other people before you can move forward on something.  Someday/Maybe is a list for things that you may want to get to eventually, but that are not pressing.  I actually separate my Someday/Maybe list into two categories: "On Hold," which are things I will definitely do but not yet, and "Someday/Maybe," which are things that I might like to do but it's okay if I never get to them. 

Another helpful list is the Projects list.  This a simple list of all your current projects, framed as an outcome that can be completed.  For example, instead of "Department Budget for Next Year," you would list "Submit draft of proposed budget to [Boss]."  That way, it's clear when your part of the project is complete.  This would not be a task on your to-do list, as there are probably many small tasks that add up to your being able to submit the draft.  

Having  a list of all the outcomes you're currently working toward can be helpful in ensuring that your task list has the right actions that will help you move forward on all your projects, and it helps in prioritizing.  When your boss wants your team to drop everything to work on something urgent, you can use your Projects list as a quick reference of what "everything" is, and whether those things are truly less important than the new project.

Make your list(s) work for you.

The single most important thing regarding task management is that if your lists aren't working, that means something needs to change about the lists, not about you.  Figure out why you don't want to look at whatever it is that you're using to track your tasks.  Is it inaccurate because you can't update it when you need to?  Is it ugly or unappealing to you?  Is it too complicated to use?  Do you need to break your tasks down in a more meaningful way so that you're not seeing everything all at once? 

This may seem to contradict the first point about chasing tools, but it might be a matter of how you're using the tool.  Are you not keeping it up to date?  Do you need to set aside an evening to figure out how to really use the feature of your tool?  Or do you genuinely need to try a different format?  It's possible that some of your original assumptions about what would work best haven't held true.  As a manager, you can't afford to be disorganized or lose track of your tasks, so it's worth taking time to find the right tool.

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