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Make your To-Do List Work for You


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There are all sorts of different things out there that people do in order to boost their productivity, and to ensure that they stay on top of the assorted tasks that they need to manage, on a daily basis — but few, if any, personal organisation “tools” are quite as widespread as a simple to-do list.

Depending on the kinds of situations you find yourself dealing with on a daily basis, your to-do list could include any number of things, ranging from a reminder to research and purchase a 6 inch trench drain for some work on your property, to filing your tax returns, or doing the dishes.

Likely enough, your to-do list will include all of the above sorts of things, and much more besides.

While to-do lists can certainly be extremely useful, and while it can be very satisfying to “cross off” an item on a to-do list, there are certain approaches to your to-do list that are likely to make it far more effective and helpful than it would otherwise be.

Here are just a few tips and suggestions on making your to-do list work for you.

Find an app (or notebook) that you find easy and pleasant to use throughout the day

Even the best to-do list in the world isn’t likely to do you any good, if it’s something that you find extremely tedious and unpleasant to use, and so barely ever even look at it, over the course of any given day.

There could be a number of reasons for your to-do list being unwieldy or unpleasant for you to use — whether you’re using a to-do list app, or a “traditional” to-do list that’s recorded on paper.

For one thing, you might simply be using a to-do list app or methodology that you find unpleasant, aesthetically speaking, or unwieldy in one way or another. This could happen, for example, if you were keeping your to-do list in a large notebook that you had to carry everywhere with you during the day, or if you were using an app that had an outdated design, or one that seemed too cartoonish, or too “mechanical” to you.

For another thing, your to-do list app or system might just be too complex for you to be able to use comfortably on the go, with entries taking too long to put in, and with all sorts of different sub-folders and tags to sort through.

Use a to-do list app (or notebook) that you find pleasant to refer to and utilise throughout the day, and you’re already in a much better position, with your to-do list being much likelier to prove helpful to you.

Utilise an “inbox” for capturing ideas — but don’t “work from” your inbox

One area where to-do lists are at risk of really falling short — or even becoming outright unusable — is with regards to excess clutter and a lack of clarity about the kinds of things you should be focusing on at any given moment.

Largely for this reason, many of the most popular to-do list templates, and general task-and-project-management methodologies, utilise an “inbox” section or feature, explicitly intended to capture and filter different tasks and ideas that may pop up during the day.

David Allen’s GTD system, for example, relies heavily on an inbox for initial capture or incoming tasks and ideas — and popular to-do list apps like Things 3 have an inbox built in.

A key point here is that you shouldn’t “work from” your inbox, and shouldn’t treat it as a “list” in and of itself. Your inbox is only for capturing things and preventing clutter.

The idea is that, whenever you have some time, you move all of the accumulated tasks out of your inbox and into different project categories — or delete or defer them.

This way, you can keep your to-do list well curated and focused, instead of feeling swamped.

Each morning, select the to-dos that you will tackle that day

Your to-do list should serve at least a couple of different roles — it should allow you to catalogue various tasks that you need to complete, in general, and it should also allow you to get through those tasks, bit by bit, on a daily basis.

Your to-do list should have an active “Today” section that you primarily work from, on a day-to-day basis.

At the start of each day, go through your different to-do list categories and select the tasks that you will work on that day, in addition to the ones that you need to work on that day (due to deadlines and so on).

By doing things this way, you will be able to systematically progress through your assorted to-dos, while having a very useful sense of clarity regarding what you should focus on each day. At the same time, you will avoid falling into the trap of becoming overwhelmed.

Categorise your to-dos by project, and decide whether they should be done “some day, maybe” or actively pursued

It’s already been mentioned that you should categorise your various to-dos by project, but an important part of this equation is also to decide which to-dos, and which projects, you will be actively aiming to work on in the near future — and which ones are “shelved” for “some day, maybe.”

This is another principle of David Allen’s GTD system, and it allows you to record and set aside fun, ambitious, or potentially meaningful tasks and experiences without forgetting about them, but also without prioritising them now.

A bucket list could be one example of a deferred project category.

It’s important, though, to actually review your “some day, maybe” to-dos on a regular basis — such as once a week — so that you don’t just end up putting them out of mind entirely.

Keep things as simple as you reasonably can

There’s been one underlying principle in most of these tips to keep in mind: you should aim to keep your to-do lists as simple as you reasonably can.

Excess complexity causes feelings of overwhelm, makes it less likely that you will actually use your to-do lists, and creates stress.

At the same time, though, your to-do lists should still be organised enough to be pleasant and intuitive to use.

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