Do you have several post-it notes on your computer or a worn-out notepad with barely legible scribbles on your desk? Is your notes app a collection of tasks from weeks ago, lost between grocery items and random attempts at poetry?
Although these may look like to-do lists, they’re not. They’re “don’t forget to do”-lists.
The difference? An effective to-do list goes through a filtering and prioritization process.
One main way to boost your productivity and stop procrastinating is to collect your tasks in an organized and systemized matter, so get started with these seven steps to creating an effective to-do list.
1: Collect in an Unfinished Task List
There’s no trace of to-do lists in cave paintings. The work was simple: gather fruit, kill animal, repair weapon, get wood for fire. Even in more recent centuries, most people’s work consisted of a straightforward process. The subtasks of projects followed each other in a natural fashion and the rhythm of the day played a big role in the order of chores. It was clear which task needed to be done when.
Today? Not so much.
Project management feels like another full-time job. Most professionals work in an infinitely more complex system than ever before. The work is often cross-disciplinary, consisting of multifaceted tasks with timelines that are interdependent on other milestones.
It’s hard to keep track of it all.
So, we end up with post-it notes everywhere. Or, worse yet, we don’t write it down at all. We keep it inside our head to ruminate until it jolts us awake at 3AM because we forgot that One Crucial Email.
The first step to an effective to-do list is to collect every task so you can put them in their proper place.
Set a timer for seven minutes and write down any task you can possibly think of. What do you need to accomplish at work? What will require your time at home? What’s a repair or errand you’ve been putting off? Any phone calls you need to return or bills you need to pay? Collect your tasks into one list.
2: Organize into separate lists
This long task list is a collection of all your roles. You wear many hats, and your task list reflects this. Spend a few minutes organizing your tasks into separate lists for each aspect of your life.
Organize the tasks into lists for your…
- …personal life
- …job or business
- … side hustle
- …kids or shared household
The goal is to end up with one effective to-do list for each area.
3: Create a to-do list by filtering
This is a vital step most people skip: filter your Unfinished Task List so that only necessary tasks are put on your to-do list. Not every task is worth your time!
Use filtering questions to narrow down your to-do list. An effective to-do list removes the following tasks:
- Tasks that compete with your priorities – When you know what matters most to you, you’ll know what tasks you can’t afford to spend time on
- Tasks that take more time 30 minutes to complete – These should be broken down into smaller steps
- Anything that can be delegated or automated – Spend time on the tasks only you can do, even if that requires an assistant, team, or tool that provides an automated system.
- Tasks that don’t lead to results – Busywork is often a form of procrastination. Remove any task that’s not providing forward motion or won’t have significant, negative impact if not accomplished.
4: Add goal-oriented tasks to the to-do list
After eliminating or replacing about 10-20% of your to-do list, add the following tasks:
- Tasks that create progress towards your goals
- Daily habits that contribute to the long-term vision for your life
- Subtasks of non-urgent, important projects
Living a productive life has far less to do with how many tasks you accomplish and far more with what kind of tasks you accomplish.
Goal-oriented tasks rarely scream for attention as much as the urgent-yet-trivial tasks do. Nobody sends you a late notice when you didn’t read a chapter in that sales book you committed to reading. However, the strategies of that author have the potential of propelling your career forward! Success is a collection of small, great decisions, so invest in your future by adding those to your list.
The 7-Week Masterclass provides in-depth training and practical tools to help you define your long-term vision, break it down into goals, and help you structure your day-to-day to make space for impactful micro actions to accomplish them.
5: Estimate the time per task
Do you know how long each task will take? An effective to-do list allocates an estimated time of completion to each task, so they can be scheduled accordingly.
When estimating the time per task, be mindful of the planning fallacy. This is a cognitive bias first defined by researchers Kahneman and Tversky as “the tendency to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a future task, due in part to the reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios.” This interesting study shows most people miss deadlines because they don’t budget for unexpected setbacks or unforeseen elements of a project.
One way to combat the planning fallacy is to add at least 20% to your initial guess. This is particularly important for tasks that take more than 15 minutes, as the accuracy of your estimate decreases as the scope of the task increases. For example, if you think a task will take 20 minutes, add 4 or 5 minutes to be more accurate.
6: Prioritize your to-do list
It’s time to burst a bubble: the chance you will accomplish each task on every list is zero to none.
Some tasks will be postponed, others will become irrelevant, and yet others will simply not get done because there wasn’t enough time.
There’s actually nothing wrong with that.
Time is a limited resource, which is more a blessing than a curse. Limitations force you to get creative and gain clarity about your priorities.
This is why listing your tasks in order of importance is vital. If you don’t, difficult or goal-oriented tasks will be the ones taking the hit. This is how people end up spending years spinning their wheels, feeling overwhelmed and overworked without getting closer to the life they wanted.
So how do you prioritize your to-do list?
Priority Question One: What’s your goal?
Every task either leads you closer to achieving a goal or leads you away from achieving a goal.
First, define your goal. If you’re creating a to-do list in the morning, set a goal for the day and identify which tasks are getting you closer to that goal. Prioritize those tasks before all others. Ideally, you accomplish these before your first meeting of the day.
Priority Question Two: What are High Value tasks?
Many times, tasks seem valuable because of a subconscious association with the activity, or because other people have placed a level of urgency on the task that isn’t relevant nor accurate. Yet, urgent doesn’t equal important.
Identify which tasks:
- create the most significant results
- would have the most significant negative impact if they wouldn’t get done.
Put the tasks that are High Value or help you achieve your goal at the top of your list and prioritize these.
What do you do with Low Value tasks that you can’t filter out? Use the “chunking method” for the remainder of your list. Schedule 60-90 minutes to work on the rest of your tasks back-to-back without stopping.
Whatever is left after that simply didn’t make the cut and will be crossed out without accomplishing it. (Yes, you’re allowed to check off unfinished tasks!)
Exception: Tasks you dread
There’s one exception to this prioritization process, which author Brian Tracy describes in his book Eat That Frog. If you’re dreading one of the items on your list, do that task first. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to procrastinate. Besides, the nagging voice in the back of your head reminding you of *that phone call* depletes your motivation like nothing else. Completing the disliked task first creates a sense of accomplishment that serves as fuel for the rest of your list!
7: Schedule your to-do list
The final step of this process transforms your to-do list into an actionable plan put the tasks into your schedule. Fill your available time slots by scheduling your tasks as if they’re important meetings. Treat it like a conference call with the CEO of your dream company; don’t reschedule or cancel it unless it’s an emergency.
At the end of this exercise, you should be able to throw away your list. Each task now has an allotted space in your schedule. Congrats, you eliminated the need for post-its and you freed up mental space for creative thinking!
Make it a habit to go through these steps to create an effective to-do list, so your productivity can skyrocket and your stress levels decrease. You’ll discover you can trust yourself to do what you need to do. Before you know it, you’ll even have time to spare!