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A to do list is can be a powerful productivity tool… but only 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…
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, and instead store everything you need to do in your head?
The truth is – done right – a to do list can be an incredibly powerful productivity tool. The problem is not all to do lists were 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 ways to turn your to do list into a powerful productivity tool…
1. Get clear on your goals
When it comes to productivity, goals are the key to EVERYTHING. So many bloggers never properly think about their goals. Or else they do set goals, but then they don’t translate those goals back to their to do list – so what they do on a day-to-day basis bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to their blogging goals.
Have a look at your to do list right now – does it contain just a small number of High Impact Tasks, each of which you know will take you one big step towards fulfilling your blogging goals? Or is it a great big jumble of everything you feel you ‘ought’ to be doing as a blogger, everything you see other bloggers doing, and everything someone once told you on a webinar you ‘should’ be doing?
If it’s the latter, take some time out to think about what you are REALLY trying to achieve with your blog and what specific action steps 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? Cross off any task on your to do list which is NOT going to take you towards your blogging goals!
2. 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 do’ tasks… But that sort of to do list is the sort of to do list that DOES NOT help you be more productive, and typically gets ignored… because it’s so long and daunting!
On the other hand, it is helpful to keep a written list of all those good ideas. Keeping ‘good ideas’, ‘to dos’ and vague plans in your head is not a great idea – as David Allen explains in his productivity classic Getting Things Done*, your brain is designed for PROCESSING ideas not STORING ideas. Trying to keep all those ‘good ideas’ in your head leads to increased levels of stress and overwhelm and a decrease in your ability to think straight and be productive.
So what’s the solution?
I believe the solution lies in having MORE THAN ONE LIST.
In fact, I believe the solution is to have 4 to do lists:
- An ‘Everything’ list – this is the place where you store all those ‘good ideas’ so they are not cluttering up your brain
- A ‘Monthly Action Plan’ – this is where you list out only the tasks that you plan to do THIS MONTH
- A ‘Weekly Action Plan’ – this is where you list out only the tasks that you plan to do THIS WEEK
- A ‘Daily Action Plan’ – this is where you list out only the tasks that you plan to do TODAY
At the beginning of each month, take a look at your ‘Everything’ list and decide what you need to do this month. (Or better still do this as part of your goal setting process at the beginning of each year.)
At the beginning of each week, look at your Monthly Action Plan and decide which tasks need to be done that week. (You could do this as part of your Sunday Night Productivity Boosting Routine.)
Finally, at the beginning of each day (or better still, the night before – see below), look at your Weekly Action Plan and decide what needs to be done that day – this is your Daily Action Plan. This means, each day, you will have a short and achievable DAILY to do list, with only the small number of tasks on it that have to be done THAT day. Once you’ve completed that small number of tasks, you’re done for the day!
**PRO TIP: Never write more on your Daily Action Plan than you can achieve in one day**
READ MORE >>> Daily, weekly and monthly blogging to do lists
3. Focus on the priorities
Once you have your short, achievable DAILY ‘to do’ list, it’s time to arrange that list in a way that helps you to focus on the priorities.
Take a look at your Daily Action Plan and ask yourself, ‘If I could only do ONE of these things today, what would it be?’ Whatever that is, do that first!
Then ask yourself, ‘If I could only do TWO of these things today, what would the other one be?’ Do that second!
And so on…
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 is all-too-easy to do!), you will at least have achieved the most important things on it by the end of the day.
4. Number your ‘to do’ list
Such a simple system, but such an effective one! As you think about your priorities, number them!
In other words, mark your number one priority #1, your number two priority #2, your number three priority #3 and so on. Then, start with Task #1 and don’t even think about any of the other things on your Daily Action Plan – focus all your attention on Task #1 until it’s done. Then move on to Task #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 Daily Action Plan. Give them a number – maybe ‘check email’ is your #5 and ‘check social media’ is #6. Once you have achieved Tasks 1-4, then your next task is email. When you get to Task #5, focus all your attention on email. Then, when you are done, exit out of your inbox and don’t even take a peek at your emails until the next scheduled ’email’ time. Then turn your attention to Task #6 – social media. Again, focus all your attention on your social media until it’s done, then exit out of all your social media accounts and don’t look at them again until your next scheduled ‘social media’ time.
For best results, only check your emails and social media accounts ONCE a day… and check them towards the END of the day and only AFTER you have completed your more important tasks for that day.
5. Give projects separate list
One reason why to do lists can get cluttered and messy is because they contain EVERY action for EVERY project.
DON’T DO THAT!
If you are working on a project with multiple actions (for example, creating a digital product, working on your email marketing or improving your SEO), write a separate to do list for that project. Write each step and stage down in the order you need to tackle it. Then, each time you work on that project, simply work down your list.
Then, on your Daily Action Plan, 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 Action Plan, 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 your projects better too.
6. Use whatever system works for you
Personally, I have a pen and paper / spreadsheet hybrid system that works incredibly well for me.
For my Daily Action Plans, I use a diary – the sort that has one page per day – and I write my short, achievable daily to do lists 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 in the future, I can quickly note that down on the correct day.
Using a paper diary for my Daily Action Plans also means I am much less likely to be distracted than if I used an app on my phone, for example. (It’s all-too-easy to pick up your phone to quickly check your to do list app… and accidentally fall down a rabbit hole of checking notifications!)
For weekly/monthly planning and project to do lists, I use spreadsheets. Each month has its own tab on my Yearly Action Plan and each big project has a tab on my main content calendar. This allows me to easily keep track of projects and plans, but it also means I don’t get side-tracked by tasks that I am not supposed to be doing this week/month. If an idea pops into my head for a project or a different month, I note it down on the appropriate project or month tab and then get back to what I was doing.
(To learn more about my Yearly Action Plan spreadsheet, read my book: Blog Smarter Not Harder.)
I recommend you use whatever system works for you: paper, notebook, phone, Word document, calendar, app – whatever makes writing your Daily Action Plans easy and allows you to easily access it… But, whatever you do, make sure it is a system that you will stick to (a fancy app that you never use is not going to make you more productive!) and make sure it is a system that won’t lead to additional distractions!
7. Don’t make your system too fancy
Don’t make your system too fancy – or you will never stick to it! The simpler you make your to do list system, the more you are likely to actually do it.
I have tried using phone and computer-based systems in the past, but I find they are too cumbersome and take too long… and so I end up not using them and I find myself reverting back to writing tasks on a piece of paper! For me the diary/spreadsheet hybrid system is so much quicker and easier… which means I actually use it!
However, whilst I much prefer pen and paper for my Daily Action Plans, and spreadsheets for my Weekly and Monthly Action Plans, there is one area where I find using an app helpful… and that’s process checklists. I find CoSchedule* works better for my process checklists as it allows me to check off each task as I complete it and it can be accessed right inside WordPress – perfect for keeping me on track when writing blog posts!
8. Write your Daily Action Plan the night before
This is a BIG tip. Honestly, when I started doing it, it was a total game changer – for so many reasons!
Firstly, I write a much better Daily Action Plan if I do it 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 better able to be objective and choose tasks that will really move the dial, rather than ‘nice to do’, easy-but-not-important tasks.
Secondly, it helps me take time off. I write my to do list for the next day at about the time I want to stop work each day. 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 as I feel I have ‘so much to do’.
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 for tomorrow. 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 Daily Action Plan 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 Task #1 and get started.
9. Don’t be distracted
Once you have your written your beautifully short and achievable Daily Action Plan, stick to it – and don’t allow yourself to be distracted!
At the start of each day, simply check what Task #1 is, then get started on that task and DON’T DO ANYTHING ELSE until Task #1 is done! Once you’ve done Task #1, turn your attention to Task #2. Give Task #2 your full attention and DON’T DO ANYTHING ELSE until Task #2 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 Daily Action Plan. Remember, you have done all the hard work writing your Daily Action Plan, so trust it and don’t get distracted.
And, whatever you do, don’t try to multi-task… mono-tasking (focusing on 1 task at a time) is MUCH more productive!
For more on mono-tasking, check out this post: How to get more done in less time on your blog
READ MORE >>> How to plan your day for maximum productivity
READ MORE >>> How to stay focused… and massively boost your productivity!
10. Reward yourself!
My final tip for writing effective to do lists is to reward yourself for completing them. So, for example, when you have completed everything on your Daily Action Plan, reward yourself with something you enjoy: read a book, go for a run, watch your favourite TV programme, take a bath, bake a cake, play with your kids – whatever would be a reward for you.
Think how enjoyable and productive your day would be if it looked like this:
- Do everything on your (short, achievable and goal oriented) Daily Action Plan
- Write tomorrow’s Daily Action Plan
- Give yourself a well-earned
- Go to bed on time
Completing your Daily Action Plan each day, and rewarding yourself with a treat for a job well done, will boost your productivity and motivation levels and help you avoid stress, overwhelm and burnout.
Get my FREE productivity guide for bloggers…
- How to do a digital declutter
- How to get more done in less time on your blog
- 10 ways to be a more productive blogger
- How to organize your blogging week
- Daily, weekly and monthly blogging to do lists
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