Most of us love to make to-do lists, and yet we very rarely cross everything off. This happens because it’s easy to overlook context.
By context I mean things like: clarifying what you want to accomplish in the grand scheme of things, understanding how to coordinate your actions with your energy levels, and acknowledging that your to-do lists exists within a constellation of other commitments—like all those meetings and calls on your calendar.
What follows is a list of nine recommendations that will help you see your to-do list—and your productivity—in the proper context. Once your tasks are connected up to the big picture and down to your body’s rhythms, you’ll be better equipped to finally cross everything off.
1. Identify your “goal posts.” Daily productivity is meaningless unless it adds up to something bigger. Which is why making a good to-do lists starts with zooming out to clarify what you want to accomplish on a macro level. I do this by sitting down every three months and identifying the 3-5 projects I want to complete over the next 90 days. Under each project, I list the handful of key actions I need to take to complete it. Then I tack up the list beside my desk. Now I have my “goal posts”—I know what I’m aiming for.
2. Use “cascading” to-do lists to track all your tasks. One of the great benefits of to-do lists is that they enable us to offload anxiety from our brains by writing down everything we need to do. That said, trying to accomplish everything on your to-do list in a single day is a recipe for failure. That’s why I keep two lists. The first is an “everything” list that I write down about once a month on a large 9” x 12” sheet of sketch paper. This is a full brain dump of absolutely anything I need/want to get done. (It can also be the place where you track all the new tasks you receive on a steady drip through email and other channels.) The second is a “daily” list that I write on a small 4” x 6” sheet of paper. Keeping two lists helps alleviate anxiety by capturing everything without allotting too much work to any one day.
Daily productivity is meaningless unless it adds up to something bigger.
3. Make tomorrow’s to-do list the night before. The easiest way to avoid distraction is to hit the ground running. To accomplish this, I like to close out my workday by jotting down my to-do list for the next day in advance. At this point, you can reference your “goals” list (point 1 above) to keep in mind what’s important and your “everything” list (point 2 above) to bear in mind what’s urgent. I find that if I wake up with a clear picture of my key priorities for the day already in mind, I am infinitely more productive—not to mention more relaxed. By contrast, kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to the dangers of reactive work, letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day via incoming emails, co-worker interruptions, etc.
4. Write it down on paper. A recent study found that writing notes in longhand—versus typing notes up on a laptop—helped college students retain and recall information more effectively. Something about the slowness of writing by hand seemed to encourage them to synthesize the concepts being taught more effectively. It’s a stretch to say that these findings necessarily pertain to writing to-do lists but I, personally, have found that writing things down by hand does make them stick in my brain more effectively that typing them into my phone.
Kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to the dangers of reactive work—letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day.
5. Order tasks based on the energy they require. Based on the circadian rhythms that we all follow as human beings, most people are at their cognitive peak between about 9am-12pm. So your order of operations matters. As you make your daily to-do list at the close of each work day, decide what task is most important for tomorrow—the one that really requires peak energy and focus. Then put that task at the top of the list and commit to spending at least 45-90 minutes on it before you check your email or social media. As you contemplate when to do other tasks, know that your energy typically dips after lunch between about 2-4pm, so you’ll want to schedule simpler, less demanding tasks for mid-afternoon.
6. Focus on small, specific, actionable tasks. Vagueness is a recipe for failure when it comes to getting shit done. To create momentum on a daily basis, you want to frame your list in terms of small-bore tasks. This is the difference between writing down one scary, monolithic task like “file 2016 taxes” (which you will never want to do) and breaking it down into smaller, more manageable tasks you might actually be willing to do like “make appointment with accountant,” “tabulate receipts in spreadsheet,” “request missing 1099s from employers,” and so forth.
Vagueness is a recipe for failure when it comes to getting shit done.
7. Plan for urgent, unexpected tasks. One of the drawbacks of being “organized” is that gives us a false sense of control—you get so intoxicated by planning, you leave no room for the unplanned. But planning for the unexpected is the point of planning! So, as you plan your daily to-do list make sure you leave some wiggle room in there for unexpected additions. You can literally write “urgent stuff” or “shit happens” as an item on your list, or you can just resolve to be staunchly un-ambitious about how much you expect to accomplish. Planning for imperfection is the key to productivity.
8. Don’t forget all that crap on your calendar. Many of us have a hidden to-do list which we call our “calendar.” Because this tends to be where we store all of our less desirable commitments—aka meetings—we like to ignore it when making our daily to-do lists, pretending we have eight hours free when really it’s only two or four hours. To avoid this mistake, make sure to write every commitment on your calendar down on your daily to-do list. This has a few effects: a) you get to cross off more stuff at the end of the day, which is great, b) you quickly realize if your list is over-ambitious and can adjust accordingly, and c) you might be encouraged to re-take control over your calendar when you realize it’s so overbooked you have hardly any time left over for the things you actually want to do.
9. Remember that less is more. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be the phrase: “Everything takes longer than you think it will.” It’s a fact I am reminded of every single time I complete any creative task—be it something as small as writing blog post or somewhat epic like publishing a three-book series. In keeping with this notion, I encourage you to keep your to-do lists short and sweet. It’s better to accomplish a handful of things and feel good, than to accomplish only half the things on your list and feel miserable. Being able to cross everything off your list builds momentum and boosts the habit of finishing.
The illustration above is by Koivo.