to do list

To do lists are most people’s first attempts to get organized and be productive. And many productive people swear by their to do lists. At the same time, I’m recently seeing a thread of articles that suggest it’s time to ditch the to-do list.

Task lists or to do lists are the lists that tell you all the things you need to get done. They can be kept on pieces of paper, in calendars, on apps for phones and computer or even in memory.

The question then is whether or not we should be ditching the to-do lists and if there is a better alternative.

Let me start by saying that, if a to do list is your ONLY productivity tool then it likely is a waste of your time and energy. However, most people use to-do lists in combination with other tools even if that tool is a simple review of the to-do list to determine what needs to be done next.

If it isn’t time to ditch the to do list, then how can we make it more effective?

Change the Name

When most people think of a to-do list, they think of this long list of all the things they have to do. A lot of my clients come to me completely overwhelmed. That’s because their lists are so long that they shut down completely and can’t function.

The trouble is in the name. To do. It indicates there’s always more work to be done and that alone can be overwhelming. Instead, consider one of these names…

Task list – By definition, a task list is the same thing as a to-do list but often doesn’t bring with it the feelings associated with a long list of things to do.

Get To Do List – I’ve written about this concept before. This is the idea of looking at each item on your list and understanding how you can be grateful for the task instead of overwhelmed by it.

We aren’t actually going to ditch the to-do list then, we are just going to call it something different.

Break It Up

Most of my clients maintain one concept of a to-do list, even if they maintain the list in several different places. Therefore, it’s time to ditch the to-do list that is WAY to long. A far better technique is to build what David Allen, in his Getting Things Done system, calls a Someday/Maybe list along with a Now List.

We usually have a lot more things that we WANT to do or that we feel are important and don’t want to forget. We tend to put all of those things on the to do list. Instead, create a list for tasks, projects or ideas that you know you don’t currently have the bandwidth to take on. This list will be a place for things you want to keep in mind for future. Things that might fall into this category might be:

  • Creating videos for marketing.
  • Cleaning out the garage or attic.
  • Planning that webinar before you’ve completed your website.
  • Taking guitar or karate lessons.
  • Researching to buy a new car (unless yours is no longer functional).

While you may have the best intentions to complete these tasks, you know you really won’t be getting tho them any time soon anyway. Therefore, it is best to move it off of your task list onto a someday/maybe list that you can draw from periodically when you have more capacity.

Top 3

For any given day, the most valuable way to use your task list is to consider what is your top three priorities to accomplish for the day and see what items on your task list fit within those priorities. Write those on an ACTION list and work from that instead of your main task list. If you get all three done, you can select three more. You aren’t totally ditching the to do list, you are pulling out the most important items.

Most people, even myself when I started out, use a to-do list and just go down them item-by-item, checking off as many as we can. Often, the desire to get more done, means we focus on the things that are quick and easy instead of the ones that are most meaningful.

When you limit your acceptable actions to only the top three most important tasks at a time, your list becomes much more manageable. As a bonus, it also actually helps move you closer to your overall goals. It’s something you can accomplish even when you are having a down day or when you just can’t motivate yourself to do more.

One Place

Heather was a client who came to be totally overwhelmed because she just never got stuff done. She said she’s tried to-do lists and actively keeps them but doesn’t find them that helpful. The key word in what Heather shared with me was “them”. I asked her where she keeps her current to do list and she explained to me that she keeps some of the tasks on her calendar, some are in her notebook (which she can never find) and some are on sticky notes in her office.

It wasn’t that to do lists weren’t working for Heather, it was that Heather didn’t have an effective system for keeping her tasks in one place. I’m definitely going to tell you to ditch the to do lists that are all over the place!

Whether you prefer paper and pencil or digital organizers, there is an effective way for you to keep track of all of your tasks so that they don’t get lost or forgotten.

Old School

One notebook – the key here is to use a single notebook and keep ALL of your tasks in one location. It should be small enough that you are willing to carry it with you no matter where you go or that you have a system in place for capturing notes on the go and transcribing them into your notebook once you return.

Notecards – Small 3×5 notecards make a great way to keep track of tasks. You can keep extras with you to write on while you are out of your office. You can also sort them out by projects and/or priorities and make notes on them as needed.

Post its – This is not my favorite method as it can get away from you easily. However, it can be a great way to plan out project tasks being able to color code and move them around easily.

New School

Toodledo – This is my top recommended task program and you can read why here.
Evernote – Evernote is growing in it’s usability as a task manager although not without some massaging. I’ve created this Evernote Task Template that you can download to your Evernote or print out to use in an Old School way.
Asana – I want to give this app/website mention because it is often referred to as a task manager. I find Asana to be more of a project manager than a task manager. It really serves an entirely different purpose in my productivity system but is worth mentioning. While projects have tasks, there are often tasks that are not associated with projects or that may be recurring. Asana is not ideal for these uses.

No Clear Action

Plan trip, make calls, build website. These things sound like tasks that need to be accomplished. The problem is that they all lack a clear starting point. HOW will you plan that trip? Do you need to call a travel agent or research locations online? WHAT calls do you need to make? Do you have  some vague list of potential prospects you’ll just procrastinate calling back? And what about the website? Will you hire someone to do it or do you need to learn how to develop WordPress to get started? You can be more effective getting things done by being precise and clear about what you need to do next.

Break projects down into small action steps. While it may feel like you are making your list longer instead of shorter, you will actually accomplish more with less wasted time.

Ditch the Inbox

Stop using your inbox as a to do list! Add tasks for you to do to a list. Or you can use a tool like Boomerang. Boomerang returns the email to your inbox at a later date if it requires a response. With digital organizers you can often send an email and create a task from that email.

And What About the Done List?

I have very mixed feelings on this concept. It can be mentally rewarding and often motivating to write down a list of things you’ve accomplished. However,  replacing a task list with a success list is like tracking your food after you’ve eaten it. It doesn’t help you make sure you are taking the necessary and best next steps towards your goals. It is a productivity tool in the sense that it is motivating but not useful for planning.

Did I miss anything? What ways do you use a to do list?

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