posted January 8, 2018

The Almighty Power of the To-Do List

Mandy Cochran

Everyone wants to get more done. In fact, most people’s New Year’s resolutions will be focused on productivity and efficiency. My main mode of staying organized, motivated, and accountable is through lists. If you’re not a list person, it’s probably because the lists get too long or you have too many changes throughout the day to make a list worth it. So, while creating a to-do list is not exactly a science, I’m here to offer my personal tips for creating effective and sustainable to-do lists.

How to Make a To-Do List

Get it all out.

First, set aside some time to get all your mental ducks in a row. For some folks, this may take ten minutes a week. For some folks, it’s the first 45 minutes of their day. Know yourself, what’s being asked of you, and how detailed you want your to-do list to be. If you’re like me, you’ll want to make sure you’re adding items big and small to the list. The big are there so you don’t miss the weekly benchmarks. The small are there so you get that little extra boost for getting things done — even if they’re quick and easy. If you’re just getting started (and feeling a bit frazzled) list everything all at once, no matter how important or what the due date may be. Once your list is long (and probably a little overwhelming), the organization begins.

Organize your tasks.

Entering the Matrix

A common and effective task organization technique is differentiating your to-do’s into the Eisenhower Matrix, placing all items two spectrums — importance and urgency. Urgent and Important items come first, then Urgent and Not Important, followed by all the rest. In fact, this version of the Eisenhower matrix gives further direction for the items in your matrix, encouraging you to do what’s important and urgent, plan what’s not as urgent but just as important, delegate what’s urgent but not important, and eliminate those lingering “not-urgent/not-important” tasks.

To-dos and Type Styles

You may draw out the Eisenhower matrix (using the above link to create a printable worksheet), or use other methods to create hierarchy in your list.  If I’m creating my list on paper, I tend to list things out in pencil so that I can move things around the page depending on hierarchy. But most often, I create my list in a digital program like Apple Notes or Evernote, where I can use type styles like Bold, Italic, Underline, or ALL THREE if things get really urgent. Small notes like asterisks* are also helpful for quick updates during the day or throughout the week.

In the above list, I’ve moved most of my urgent items to the top, denoting the most urgent with underline. The pitch deck definitely takes precedence over everything, but the dry cleaner will close for the weekend at 7pm. As unimportant as that is, it’s got to be done. Today. Just like the pitch deck. So I make sure it’s on my list, and ranked in the top three in terms of urgency. But then I’ve also got an important item towards the bottom, but it’s a long-term task, so I keep it at the bottom to not clog my focus. (Also, I’ve already checked off one item, albeit not one of the most urgent or important. Small benchmarks of productivity put a little bit of spring in my step, so I like to keep at least one completed item on my list at all times.)

Secret Hack to Getting More Done (and Not Losing Your Mind)

The most effective tip I can give for creating to-do lists for daily life is to prioritize. At the beginning of the day, pick three items you will get done, always keeping in mind what you can get done. Set yourself up for success, and when those three items are checked off, you’ve succeeded. And everything else you complete is just icing on the proverbial cake. I used to not be able to go to bed if there were any items left on my list. Now, I just know how to make a better list.

Your list will always have items, and that’s okay. Here are some items I think everyone should have on every list to help with the “not losing your mind” bit.

  • Staying present.
    Not always fun, but always important. Keep mindfulness at the top of your list, and you’ll be able to keep focus and flexibility about what’s actually important, what’s actually urgent, and what other options you have. It’s hard to delegate when you’re bogged down, so staying connected to how you’re feeling about a task can help you delegate before you run out of steam or daylight.
  • Self care.
    Whether it’s setting aside an hour for the gym, thirty minutes for lunch outside, or a 15 minute dance break (Zumba Fridays!), make sure there’s always room for YOU on your list. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Provide for yourself what you need to provide for your job, your team, or your family. It’s got to get done, so it belongs on the list.
  • Empty space.
    For most of us, busy feels good. But for some, it feels like more than just “busy,” and can “I’m busy” can be misconstrued as “I’m important,” or more than that, “I’m worthy.” You are important. You are worthy. No matter how many items are on your list. Leave room for empty space, and don’t just accept when a list is “done,” but rather “done enough.” Sleep. Breathe. Work out or play with your kids. (Those seem pretty dang urgent and important to me.)

Hopefully this is a helpful tutorial for organization and productivity in the new year! (And if you don’t have time to implement these just yet, add them to your to-do list and come back later.)