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  • Writer's pictureIan Amane

3 tips to make your to-do lists work

Making a productive to-do list instead of a busy one

  1. Separate daily tasks from weekly tasks. I have been using to-do lists for over 15 years and they only really started working for me when I started separating my tasks based on time periods. On my daily lists are tasks the sum of which can be accomplished in under 5 hours and on my weekly list are tasks doable in a week. The weekly tasks are broken down into daily tasks and little by little I get there. Of course I don't get to accomplish everything on either list all the time but they do keep things moving and getting done which is important because it helps me in larger, deeper ways. I have always struggled with depression. My mom had it and a lot of people in my family had it. When I started doing to-do lists and reprioritizing my life, suddenly the depression was easier to keep at bay. I think when we start doing things, actually doing them, not just making plans or talking or writing about doing them, especially things that we know, in the very depths of our soul, to help us and people around us, we become valuable. And nothing attracts darkness as strongly as the truth that you are not valuable. That's why I use daily and weekly to-do lists, to make sure that everyday I improve something for people around me as well as myself.

  2. Try to use S.M.A.R.T. goals as much as possible. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based goals make the goals concrete and, more importantly, clear. One of the most common problems people face with to-do lists is the vagueness of whether something is finished. Let's say I have an entry in my to-do list which is: Read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (I actually do have this) and let's say this is in my daily list. Now obviously I do not mean the entire book, that's just impossible for me. So maybe I mean read a few pages. Since I did not specify how many pages, at the end of day I have to debate whether I actually did the task, something that could have been avoided if I had just made my task specific in the first place. What helps me as well is to imagine the outcome I want instead of the task and write that down. This has helped me a lot especially with non-output related tasks like getting updated about something. Something like "ask for an update regarding payment" becomes "get an update regarding payment". A small difference in construction but a huge difference in productivity. The first one stops at you just asking for one, actually getting an update or not getting one does not matter, while the second one is a more concrete description of your goal. The first one is about the action you do, the second one is about results. At an unconscious level this also promotes a frame of mind that is not focused on being busy but rather on productivity. It trains you to be conscious about whether your actions actually lead to results or just make you look busy to impress someone. A lot of people know about this but I have met very few who actually practice it.

  3. Develop good habits. The secret to happiness: good habits. Our capacity to develop good habits is humanity's greatest weapon. Good habits allow us to overcome the weaknesses we develop along the way and make self-improvement easier than it should be. Once a good habit becomes so ingrained in us it almost requires no effort to do, it becomes a virtue. And the Greeks say a virtuous life is a happy one. To-do lists can be a habit and here are some things that might help you make it one:

    • Set an alarm the same time everyday or every week to remind you to create your list and a second one to review it. Have the time in between these two alarms your “work time”. In my case I create my list at around 9:50 am, start my work day at 10 am, end it at 4 pm and review which items I was able to do and which ones I have to carry over to tomorrow’s or next week's list.

    • Be honest with yourself. Stop making excuses for yourself and giving in to laziness or pride. Each time you stop yourself you get stronger. The stronger you get the easier it will be and the more you do it the closer it becomes a habit. When that habit becomes permanent and integral in your way of life, congratulate yourself. You have just earned the virtue of temperance. When the struggle gets too hard, remember, everyone struggles with this.

    • Follow your own rules. The first step to following your own rules is to not make stupid, unrealistic rules. An unrealistic rule is self-destructive. Make rules that are realistic and sensible and attuned to your way of doing things. I accomplish things fast but require a lot of time to relax and think. If you are like me then keep shorter working hours but increase the number of tasks you do each day. I set my minimum at 4 but I average around 5 tasks. And these are tasks that last longer than 15 minutes to do. I set my start time at 10 because I am a late starter. And I only work 4 days a week because I do more in a day than most people. Mainly because I do not procrastinate and I choose tasks that I know create value. I do not do things without understanding how they contribute. You have to be careful to not choose busy work. Work that only makes you busy but does nothing for the company.

The simplest things in life are often the hardest to do like telling the truth or not being selfish. In like manner, a simple to do list requires a lot of work. As in life, the closer it is to what is true and real the better it is. I hope this helps you in your journey to be a valuable contributor at your job and, by extension, your life.


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