Creating an Effective To-do List
No matter how big your workload, it’s a lot less daunting when you know exactly what you have to do and exactly when you have to do it. And you can get that information from the simplest of tools: a to-do list.
A to-do list is a simple scheduling tool that captures all the important tasks you need to complete. They usually cover a day, but can cover a week, a month, or any other time period.
Crossing off the tasks on your to-do list can be a great motivator– who doesn’t enjoy doing that– and a great way to monitor productivity.
Things on your to-do list could include meetings you’re scheduled to attend, phone calls you have to make, e-mails you need to write, and decisions you have to make.
Although daily to-do lists are most common, they’re not the only sort. Types of to-do lists include a daily to-do list, which is a list of action items to be completed within a business day. Or you could have a projects to-do list, which itemizes the actions needed to meet deadlines and milestones for a specific project or initiative.
A long-term to-do list itemizes the tasks that are valuable for working toward your goals, but aren’t time sensitive. These may be tasks you want to do at some point, but don’t have the time or resources to pursue at the present time.
An effective to-do list has three basic characteristics:
First, It should be written down — it doesn’t matter whether it’s on paper or in electronic format. It’s almost impossible to keep an accurate to-do list in your memory. Writing down your list and crossing off items will make sure it’s accurate and up-to-date.
Next, it should be short — preferably ten items or fewer. Trying to add too many tasks could overwhelm you and set you up for failure. Think of your to-do list as a “top ten” list with the ten most valuable things you have to get done.
And, finally, the tasks should be prioritized by importance. The main purpose of a to-do list isn’t to get everything done. It’s to make sure that your most important tasks are completed. That’s why to-do lists are prioritized. Prioritizing your list identifies which are the most important items in your schedule, and which can be postponed if necessary.
People use different designations and different levels of assessment for prioritizing tasks. Some classify tasks simply as urgent or not urgent. Others use A, B, C, D, or 1, 2, 3, or colors. It doesn’t matter — all that matters is that the most critical tasks go at the top of the list.
A to-do list is one of the simplest scheduling tools imaginable, but don’t be fooled: it’s one of the best tools for guiding and monitoring your productivity.
Making Effective Use of a To-do List
Creating a good to-do list counts for little if you don’t use it effectively. Fortunately, there are guidelines that can help you use to-do lists more effectively.
The first guideline is to break items down into achievable tasks. For example, divide Check e-mails into checking e-mails and answering e-mails. Complicated, loosely defined, or time-consuming activities should be broken down into smaller, achievable tasks.
The next is to create realistic objectives and time lines. Don’t have too many items or items that simply aren’t achievable. Time lines are also important. So consider how much time a task will need — and ensure you’ve scheduled enough.
The third guideline is to assign priorities to your list items. An effective to-do list prioritizes tasks in order of importance. You don’t have to do the tasks in order, but prioritizing reminds you of your most critical tasks whenever you check the list.
Another guideline is to revise the list as needed. To be effective, the to-do list must be current. So review and amend your list regularly. Be ready to make changes based on completed tasks, revised deadlines, and unpredictable events.
The final guideline is to keep motivated. Efficiency and effectiveness have as much to do with motivation as with meticulous scheduling. Keeping motivated means keeping faith in your ability to see your tasks through.
For instance, let’s see how a manager at a public relations company makes effective use of her daily to- do list.
First, she notes from her schedule that she has an hour set aside for paperwork. For her to-do list, she looks at each sub-task in this hour and determines that preparing a client contract is time sensitive and high value. So she adds this to the list. This is an example of breaking items down.
Then she reviews her tasks to ensure they’re worded in an objective and achievable manner. She considers the list item “Finish contract” and revises it to “Proof and approve contract by noon.” Here she’s creating realistic objectives.
Third, she checks her schedule for the next day and lists all the critical tasks. She then lists the high, medium, and low priority tasks. This is assigning priorities.
Next she compiles her list by adding her top ten most important tasks for the day. At 10:00 a.m., her boss calls to reschedule their weekly meeting to the next day. She reschedules the meeting and moves a lower priority item onto her task list to fill the spot. She’s revising as needed.
Finally, she crosses each task off her list as she completes it. By the end of the day, she’s completed every item on her list, and leaves the office earlier than her less-efficient colleagues. See how she’s keeping herself motivated.
Creating an effective to-do list is a necessary and important part of personal scheduling — but it’s just as important to make effective use of that list. Following these core guidelines will keep you on track.