I think I wrote my first To-Do list in 4th grade when I was trying to juggle a geography test, getting a merit badge I really wanted, and catching grasshoppers with my little brother. Lists have been faithful companions ever since but there are right and wrong ways to create them. Taking the wrong approach and you risk setting yourself up for failure.
First, remember that you never will finish all the items on your list. If you do, you haven’t put enough items on it.
Rather, consider the list as a planning tool, an anti-anxiety device (if it’s on the list you won’t forget it), a push in the behind to get the engine started, and a rationale in the name of getting something done.
Once you've grasped that thought, use these strategies to make your to-do list even better.
- Write when you are fresh
I used to prod myself into making a list before I left the office at night, but after a really hectic day, I was zoned. My brain was in final stages of rigor mortis and my body was chanting home! home! home! in the background.
Then I tried writing lists in the office when I first got there in the morning and found, often as not, that I hit the deck running, diving into the first crisis of the day. The list got, sort-of, put together by 10 am or so, when I came up for air. By then the day evaporated in front of me.
What I finally discovered was the art of the 5 minute list - composed after breakfast, before hitting the road. The items that I remembered then, away from the office, turned out to be the ones most important to the day ahead.
- Keep the list short and simple
My first boss gleefully wrote his To-Do list on a post-it note that he waved under my nose. There were days I felt like shot-putting him out of the window. The reason why he could do that, I wanted to point out, was that my to-do list was three pages long.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the magic of Pareto’s 80/20 percent rule. Eighty percent of the value of anything comes from the 20 percent of the most important items. You just gotta figure out which 20 percent to focus on.
That’s why you start fresh (see #1 above). If your original list has 20 items on it, save that list, but rewrite your new one with only the 4 most crucial items.
- Eat dessert first
To that list, add at least 3 of what Alan Lakein (in How to get Control of Your Time and Your Life) categorized as “C-Low priority” items. Make them things you can do in 10 minutes or less; do them first.
Then you can get on to the really big stuff with those three items already crossed off your list. Sure it’s playing a game with yourself, but it’s a big psychological boost when you most need it—facing the start of another challenging day.
- Put the list where you can find it
My desk gets buried by noon with incoming projects. I found that if I scotch-taped the list to the surface of the desk I always knew where it was. I just dug through the new paper stacks and voila! There it was waiting for me.
- Start with a new list each morning
Keep the old list, so you won’t forget anything, but reprioritize and start over each morning. New most important 20%, new three slam-dunk items. That way you only deal with each day’s guilt, not pile on the batch from not-done items on yesterday’s list as well.
- Keep a bedside worry book—with a pencil
Ever wake up at 2AM with that problem still tornadoing around in your skull? Write it down. Write down one possible solution, even if it’s only that you’ll work on it tomorrow. If you do it in pencil you know that it’s being recorded. Then go back to sleep. You’ll be much more refreshed in the morning. If the item is still important in the morning, add it to that day’s list.
You know that you’ll be working as hard and as fast as you can. That’s what we do. But accept the fact that only so much can be done within an 8 or 10 or 12 hour day. Then your to-do list will become an ally, not an enemy.