A ‘to do’ list is a great productivity tool…if you write a good one! The trouble is so often ‘to do’ lists are not well written and end up making you LESS productive not MORE productive. Read on to find out how to write an effective ‘to do’ list…
How to write an effective to do list
What does your ‘to do’ list look like right now? Is it neat and short? Long and scribbly? Covered with doodles? On a scrap of paper? In a nice notebook? On your phone? Do you use a fancy app? Or do you not have one at all?
Personally, I think that having a ‘to do’ list is one of the most effective productivity tools there is… if it’s a GOOD ‘to do’ list! In fact, I include ‘to do’ lists as one of my key components of The Smart Blogger’s Toolkit in my ebook BLOG SMARTER NOT HARDER (you can grab your free copy of Blog Smarter Not Harder here).
The problem is not all to do lists are created equally. A GOOD ‘to do’ list is your ticket to greater productivity, less stress, more results and ultimately achieving your goals. A BAD ‘to do’ list is the exact opposite – it reduces productivity, creates stress and doesn’t help you see results or achieve your goals. So how exactly do you write an effective to do list? Here are 10 tips…
Know your goals
I talk about this A LOT, but for me it really is the key to EVERYTHING. So many people either never think about their goals. Or they think about their goals but then don’t translate that back to their ‘to do’ lists. Have a look at your to do list right now – does it contain clear actions that you know will take you one more step towards fulfilling your blogging goals? Or a jumbly mish mash of everything and anything?
If it’s the latter, take some time out to think about what you are really trying to achieve with your blog and what actions you need to take in order to achieve those goals. Then look at your to do list afresh. Is everything on that list serving those goals? If not cross it off!
Keep it short and achievable
It is so tempting to just write EVERYTHING on your to do list. Every idea that pops into your head. Every action that you ever need to take. Everything you need to remember. All those ‘one day’ and ‘it might be nice to…’ tasks… But that sort of ‘to do’ list is the sort of ‘to do’ list that gets ignored, because it’s just too darn SCARY!!!!
Buuuut… it IS helpful to keep a list of everything. It stops you forgetting things, it helps reduce stress and it helps keep you focused. So what do we do?
My top tip is to have MORE THAN ONE LIST. Have a great jumbly list of everything if you want to, but don’t use that list as your daily ‘to do’ list. Only write on your daily ‘to do’ list things you plan to do THAT DAY. Put everything else somewhere else entirely.
I actually find it helpful to have 3 lists: an ‘everything’ list, a ‘this week’ list and a ‘today’ list. I start with my ‘everything’ list and decide what I need to do this week. Then I look at my ‘this week’ list and allocate which day I am going to do each action on. Then each day I only have a small number of tasks. When I’ve finished them, I’m done!
TOP TIP: Don’t write more on your ‘to do’ list than you can achieve in one day
Focus on the priorities
Once you have your neat, short, achievable ‘to do’ list. Focus on the priorities. Think: ‘if I could only do one of these things today, what would it be?’ and do that first. Then think ‘if I could only do two of these things today, what would the other one be?’ and do that second.
Not only does this help you focus on the most important activities of the day, rather than getting stuck on the peripherals, but it also means, if you do write a to do list that is too long and unachievable (as we all tend to do!), you will at least have achieved the most important things on it by the end of the day!
Number your ‘to do’ list
Such a simple system, but such an effective one! As you think about your priorities number them! So, mark the number one priority #1, the number two priority #2, the number three priority #3 and so on. Then when you come to working through your to do list, start with #1 and don’t even think about any of the other things on your list, focus all your attention on #1 until it’s done. Then move on to #2 and so on…
Now you may be thinking, yes but Eb, what about email? What about social media? DON’T LET THEM DISTRACT YOU! Instead build them into your ‘to do’ list. Give them a number – maybe ‘check email’ is your #3. Once you have achieved task number 1 and 2, then your next task is email. Focus all your attention on email. Then when you are done, switch email (or social media or whatever) off and don’t turn it on again until your next scheduled time.
Give projects separate list
One reason why to do lists can get cluttered and messy is that we have a tendency to include every action from every project. DON’T DO THAT! If you are working on a project with multiple actions, write a separate ‘to do’ list for that project. Write each step and stage down in the order you need to tackle it and each time you work on that project, work down your list.
Then on your daily ‘to do’ list, all you need to write is either the name of the project (and then you refer to the project list for whatever action needs doing that day) or the name of the specific action(s) you plan to do on that project today.
So say for example you are planning to start and grow your email list. You may have 10 or more activities you would like to do – maybe things like: research email service providers, create sign up forms, write an automated welcome sequence, create a free opt-in offer…
On your daily to do list either write ‘email project’ and give yourself a time limit, or simply write the one activity from your project list you want to achieve that day on your ‘to do’ list, for example ‘research how to create a welcome sequence’ or ‘write a rough draft of free opt-in offer’.
This way your main ‘to do’ list won’t get cluttered with every step of every project, AND you will be able to keep track of projects better too.
Use whatever system works for you
Personally, I am a pen and paper girl. That works for me. I actually have a diary – the sort that has one page per day – and I write my to do list in there. This means it’s quick and easy to use, easily portable, it’s all together in one place (so I can easily flip back and look at previous to do lists), and if anything comes in that needs to be done on a specific day, I can pop that in on the correct day.
But use whatever system works for you: paper, notebook, phone, Word document, fancy pants planning app – whatever makes writing to do lists easy and allows you to easily access it.
Don’t make your system too fancy
One caveat to the above. Don’t make your system too fancy – or you will never stick to it! The simpler you make your to do list writing system, the more you are likely to actually do it.
I have tried using phone and computer-based systems, but I find they are too cumbersome and take too long and I end up not using them and writing it on a piece of paper anyway! For me the diary/notebook system is so much quicker and easier, which means I actually do it!!
We are all different though, so go with whatever works best for you – Mr G prefers to use his phone, for example. And whilst I much prefer pen and paper for my daily ‘to do’ lists, I do find CoSchedule* works better for my project lists.
Write your ‘to do’ list the night before
This is a BIG tip. Honestly, when I started doing it, it was a total gamechanger – for so many reasons!
Firstly, I think my brain is in a better place the night before. If I write my to do list in the morning, I find I am more likely to write the things I WANT to do rather than the things I really NEED to do, whereas if I write my to do list the night before, I am more sensible!
Secondly, it helps me take time off – I make myself write my to do list for the next day at about the time I should stop work. Usually it makes me realise that I actually CAN stop work. That there’s nothing really critical left to do today, nothing that can’t be left until tomorrow and so I stop and have time off in the evenings. If I don’t do this, I tend to just keep working until late in the evening.
Thirdly, it helps me rest and sleep better. Once I’ve written my to do list for tomorrow, I don’t need to worry. I know tomorrow is all planned and sorted and I can relax and take time off in the evening and go to bed at a sensible time. And I don’t worry about work during the night, because I have already written my beautiful short, achievable, prioritised ‘to do’ list and so mentally it’s all taken care of – I have nothing to worry about.
Finally, it helps me hit the ground running the next day. I know myself all to well. If I don’t have a clear, numbered to do list I will faff and flap for the first hour before getting down to business. But if my to do list is already written, all I have to do is look at item number 1 and get started.
Don’t be distracted
Once you have your beautiful to do list written, stick to it! Don’t allow yourself to be distracted! Just check what task #1 is. Do that and don’t do anything else until #1 is done. You will be amazed how much more productive you are if you just stick to one task at a time and work steadily down your to do list. Remember you have done all the hard work writing your to do list, so trust it and don’t get distracted! And don’t try to multi-task! Mono-tasking (focusing on 1 task at a time) is WAY more productive!
For more on mono-tasking, check out this post: How to get more done in less time on your blog
Rewrite your ‘to do’ list if necessary
One criticism I hear a lot about ‘to do’ lists is they are inflexible and restrictive. But they don’t have to be! I talk a lot about not letting things like emails and social media distract you from your ‘to do’ list, but sometimes ‘to do’ lists DO need to be rewritten. Sometimes something comes in that is a higher priority than everything else on your list and needs to be done first. If that happens, don’t just be distracted by this new priority. Stop and rewrite your to do list. And consider what you need to cross off your list in order to fit in this new priority. Then work through your new ‘to do’ list in the same way as before.
Obviously sometimes life happens and rewriting your ‘to do’ is not sensible or even possible – if your child breaks their leg – don’t stop to write a new ‘to do’ list! Go look after your child!! And don’t even think about ‘to do’ lists until you’ve taken care of them! But if it’s about work priorities it is usually better to rewrite your to do list rather than simply ignoring it.
My final tip for writing effective ‘to do’ lists is to create rewards for yourself for completing them. So, for example when you have completed everything on your (short, achievable) ‘to do’ list do something fun: read a book, go for a run, watch your favourite programme, take a bath, bake a cake, play with your kids – whatever would be a reward for you.
Think how pleasant and productive your day would be if it looked like this:
- do everything on my (short, achievable and goal oriented) to do list
- write tomorrow’s to do list
- have a reward
- go to bed on time
It’s a great feeling when it works out like that!
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