We’ve all done it.
Armed with a gallon of coffee, we get to our desk and scribble down a to-do list as long as the River Nile. From dry cleaning to plant preening, every task takes pride of place.
Whether you love them or hate them, to-do lists are pretty addictive.
But is it time to rethink our love affair with task tidying? And are our to-do lists actually stopping us from being as productive as possible?
Let’s take a look.
Back in my day
It’s one of the few bits of advice that has stuck with me my entire life. Make a list and cross them off. From primary school right through to my first job, I heard those same words time and time again.
And it makes perfect sense. Committing our tasks to paper is a great way of seeing what we need to do and how we can go about doing it. But the problems come in crossing them off. Rather than helping us feel on top of things, to-do lists can actually leave us more frustrated than when we started. Here are a few ways to make your to-do lists start working for you.
Keep it brief
I’ll hold my hands up. I am terrible at knowing how long a task will take. If my to-do lists were accurate, I would have done a weekly shop, learned how to juggle and written a symphony all before lunch.
And it happens to a lot of us. According to some studies, only 17% of us can accurately guess how long a task will take to complete. Under pressure from work and social appointments, we get tend to get a little ambitious.
So despite all our best intentions, our to-do lists can be doomed from the start. It’s no wonder so many of them end up rolling over into tomorrow. The constant cycle of never-ending tasks can leave us feeling overwhelmed.
But one way we can tame our to-dos is to keep them brief. Limit your list to five tasks a day. That way, even if you don’t complete them all, your to-do list hangover stays manageable.
Give it time
A task without a timeframe is like a car without a steering wheel. Sure it may be powerful, but who knows where it might end up?
That’s because we’re creatures of habit. Our brains are built around schedule and order. A jumbled list of to-do tasks leaves us cold and uninspired. But draw up a schedule and things kick into gear. But how can we put this into practice?
Consider investing in a calendar or a good old-fashioned diary. Under each day, write down your tasks and a time at which you can do them, being as realistic as possible. By committing our to-dos to a specific timeframe, we incentivise our brains to get them done.
I am an expert dawdler. In fact, I put the pro in procrastination. And when it comes to to-do lists, things only get worse. By the time I’ve drawn up my tally of tasks, I’m already looking for the ones that will kill some time.
Complete that work report? I’d much rather clean out the rabbit hutch. I can’t send those emails I’m afraid, I’m alphabetising my record collection.
Ticking off the simple tasks is an easy way to give ourselves some gratification while avoiding the hard graft. But getting our priorities right is incredibly difficult. However, there are some simple tricks that can help us along the way.
When drawing up your to-do list, give extra weight to the things that will make the greatest impact on your day. In other words, prioritise the tasks that future you would most appreciate.
Look the part
What was your last to-do list written on? An envelope? The back or a receipt? If you’re anything like me, your waste paper bin is full of half ticked to-dos from days gone by.
The truth is, the less care and attention we put into something, the less importance we give it. If our to-dos lists are scrawled on a scrap of paper, we might as well treat them like, well, a scrap of paper.
So the next time you sit down to pen a to-do, make an event of it. Assign yourself a special journal and write down your tasks with care and precision. The nicer it is to look at, the more likely we are to treat it with respect.
If you want to stay really organised, assign separate spaces for daily, weekly and monthly tasks. You can always move them around to fit your schedule.
Sharing is caring
To-do lists may feel like personal property but opening them up to others is a great way of helping us stick to them. All too often, we can toss them away without any reflection or repercussions.
But sharing our to-do lists with someone we trust immediately gives it more clout. It doesn’t mean they have to be breathing down your neck 24/7. But a good accountability partner can help you evaluate what’s really important and push you to get things finished.
Why not team up with a friend or partner and share your to-do lists with each other? Then treat one another when you tick them all off.
Be good to yourself
The biggest danger of broken to-do lists is how they can make us feel. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. It doesn’t mean we have to feel sorry for ourselves.
And while we can’t magic up more hours in the day, we can boost our energy for the time that we do have. So never underestimate the power of sleep, exercise and good nutrition.
Perhaps it’s time we put those things at the top of our to-do lists.