Oh, man. It’s happened again. Your pal Britney is on your IG stream showing off everything from her yoga skills to her cute kid to her amazing professional success.
And you’re trawling the internet for your third consecutive hour, desperately seeking evidence of the butthole edit of “Cats.”
Between housework, work-work, working out, and making friendships work, achieving goals, meeting expectations, and making deadlines always seem like more work than the work itself.
Creating an efficient to-do list is an amazing first step. You’re finally sitting in front of the Hallowed Checklist of Fate. And if you’re not yet, add making a to-do list to your to-do list.
We’ll show you how to turn that list into a productivity horcrux that helps you keep up with Britney, the All-Achieving Fictional Yoga Mom. These 15 tips will help you organize your life into a manageable list and crush it.
Then obliterate it.
Not everyone runs on lists. However, if you’re struggling to make sense of your goals, a list could save you time, energy, and the need to come up with excuses for when the thing that needs to happen, well, doesn’t.
(If you have a word with Oskar Schindler, he’ll tell you that lists can also save lives.)
List-making is pretty personal. Some people border on obsessive about them. Organizing the bathroom can turn into a session of ticking off 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, rather than a freestyle shift-around between number 2s.
Others prefer less to-doing and fro-ing. They’d rather wing it, writing important telephone numbers on the backs of their hands or sticking Post-its to their leg, “Memento”-style.
However, even the most basic outline of the things you need to do can help you crush your goals and foes. Largely, your goals.
For one thing, the act of writing out a list forces us to set concrete goals (To-do: “Take out the trash.”). This can be way more effective than thinking about vague objectives (To-don’t: Get cleaner)
Plus, making a written list can help us remember important information (meaning that trash won’t sit in the kitchen for weeks, or that if it does, you won’t forget to charge it rent).
The problem is this: Not all lists are created equal.
Even those of us who have bumper stickers that read: “People who make to-do lists tick every box” might not know how to make a successful one. (That’s a terrible bumper sticker, BTW. If it’s real, and you actually have it, add “abandon your vehicle by the side of the road and set it aflame” to the very top of your to-do list.)
Luckily we’re here to help, with a step-by-step guide to creating — and completing — an awesome list of stuff to get done.
1. Pick a medium
To-do lists come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s all about what works for the individual.
Some research suggests writing information by hand helps us remember it better, but if you last picked up a pen in 1995, fear not: There’s a huge range of digital apps that can help you create personal to-do lists.
Some people might find that adding different colors for different types of tasks might help the routine stick. Others go the whiteboard or corkboard route.
Whichever way you swing, make sure your to-do list takes a form that makes your brain happy.
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2. Make multiples
Why have one list when you can have… wait, more than one? What is this, Christmas?
Create several lists of things that need to happen. Our suggestions would be:
- A master list. This lays out your long-term goals. If you need to clean out your closet and whatever’s living in there, want to sign up for a language class, or need to move to a new apartment, jot it all down on your master list.
- A weekly project list. This should contain everything that needs to go down in the next 7 days. Maybe you need to research which language to learn or which area to start your apartment search. Throw it in here.
- A high-impact tasks list. This bad boy lets you know about tasks that need doing pronto: Call Aunt Sue for her birthday, pick up the dry cleaning, or finish that presentation for work tomorrow.
Every day, see which items from the master list and weekly project list should move to the HIT list. You’ll find that the big hitters from your master list start to play a more active role in your day-to-day.
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3. Keep it simple
There’s nothing more intimidating than a mile-long to-do list. The longer a to-do list becomes, the harder it can be to motivate yourself.
And you’d be surprised at how hard it is to get much stuff done in 24 hours. Life has a habit of lurking over your shoulder and getting in the way, the creeper. One trick for keeping a HIT list simple is to make a list of stuff you want to do today and slice it in half.
CHOP. THAT. BUSINESS.
There shouldn’t be more than 10 items remaining. The rest can go on the weekly projects list or the master list.
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4. Meet the MITs
No, we’re not dumping an application to a prestigious tech college on your plate. You have enough to deal with.
MIT means “most important tasks” and should become your mantra if you’re looking to head out on a to-do rampage.
Start the list with at least two items that absolutely must get done today to make sure you don’t end up vacuuming instead of finishing a project report due tomorrow or remembering to buy medications.
Even if the rest of the list doesn’t come to pass, the really meaningful, time-sensitive stuff will be out of your hair.
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5. Start easy
Even before those MITs (see above), stick a few simple items on the list.
“Fold clothes,” “wash breakfast dishes,” and “shower” are all good examples. Just crossing off routine stuff helps us start the day feeling super-productive.
People warm up before lifting weights or brace themselves before watching the “Cats” butthole edit. Likewise, getting a bit of momentum going with some productivity dummy runs can prime you for peak goalsmashment.
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6. Break it down
Goals like “work on research paper” are too vague and intimidating. This means we may hesitate to actually start tackling them and may not be sure where to start once we do.
It’s also not sensible to cram a task that takes time and patience to get right, like a research paper, into one day. Really think about it: How much do you need to get done? For how long? When do you get a break?
One way to reduce the fear factor (and the number of excuses for procrastination) is to make goals seem more manageable by breaking projects into smaller tasks.
Instead of “work on research paper,” try something more specific. You could split up your load: Write down “write first half of chapter three” for Monday and “write second half of chapter three” on Tuesday’s list.
The same way you can’t fit a whole watermelon in your mouth at once but can demolish a slice in seconds flat, this bite-size approach to time management will make that feeling of completion much sweeter.
If you’re really running out of time before an assignment is due, click here for tips on pulling an all-nighter.
7. Stay specific
We love lofty goals here. One of our marketing guys wants to be best friends with Jeff Goldblum, and I wish him the best. However, the overarching things we want from life can trip up the practical parts of achieving them.
(If you’re reading this, Jeff, we’d all readily accept your friendship if you offered.)
To bring your goals within arm’s reach, all to-do lists should have these qualities (among others) in common:
- They’re physical actions.
- You can finish them in one sitting.
- They’re tasks that only the to-do-list writer can fulfill.
For general projects that require lots of time or other people’s help, list specific steps you can take. Instead of “save the animals,” try “write cover letter for internship at World Wildlife Fund.”
8. Include it all
For every task on the list, include as much information as you need to get it done.
For example, if the task involves calling your gas company to query a bill, include their phone number on the list. This will save you time scrambling for it later.
9. Time it
So you’ve made the list and checked it twice (next year, I’d like a bike, please, Santa).
Now, you need to go back over it and put a time estimate next to every item. It might even help to transform the to-do list into a kind of schedule, with specific times and places.
- Laundry: 4–6 p.m. at Suds & Stuff
- Clean out inbox: 6–7 p.m. at Starbucks on 6th Avenue
- Call Mom (1-800-MOMNICE): 7:30 p.m.
When time’s up, it’s up. There’s no spending 6 hours at the Laundromat, no matter how much you want to put off calling your mom.
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10. Don’t stress
Every master list has a few tasks on it that we’ve been meaning to do for days, weeks, or maybe even years but haven’t yet.
Try to figure out why not in order to learn what steps are necessary for actually completing the task. Are you avoiding calling Uncle Pat for fear of getting stuck on the phone for the whole afternoon?
Replace “Call Uncle Pat” with “figure out a way to get off the phone with Uncle Pat.” This way the big task will seem easier and eventually end up with a big ol’ tick next to it. How gratifying.
Until of course Uncle Pat’s adds you on Facebook when you get off the phone. Time to add “find way to block relentless fishing memes” to your itinerary.
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11. Make it public
Sometimes the best way to stick with a plan is having someone hold you accountable.
Try sharing that to-do list. Whether you post it on the refrigerator or set up a digital calendar that everyone involved with the project can access, this lets those relying on you know that you have the task(s) in hand.
12. Schedule scheduling
One of the trickiest aspects of the to-do list is actually sitting down to make one. How can you plan your to-do list when you’re so busy to-doing it!?!
Pick a time every day when you can organize all your tasks and determine what you need to accomplish. This can be in the morning before everyone else wakes up, the hour right before bed, or lunchtime.
Make sure you block off some time to block off the rest of your time.
13. Go in with the old
Ah, the good old days, when you managed to get everything done and still have time to plonk yourself in front of re-runs of The OC. Wait, what? That was only yesterday?
A great way to boost productivity is reminding yourself how well you did to accomplish what you did yesterday. Think of a to-do list as a running roll call of things you get to celebrate having achieved tomorrow.
Keep a written list of your accomplishments the day before, even the seemingly routine stuff. Celebrating the small victories will give you the confidence to approach the greater challenges.
14. Start fresh
Make a new list every day so the same old items don’t clog up the agenda. If something lives on the to-do list for too long, it does not get to-done, and that is to-disappointing.
It’s also a useful way to make sure we get something important done every 24 hours and don’t just spend time decorating bits of paper with fancy highlighters.
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15. Be flexible
Pro tip: Always leave about 15 minutes of “cushion time” in between items on the to-do list or calendar.
This leaves you wiggle room. Yes, we know we drummed home the importance of not sleeping at the laundromat to get your washing finished, but you shouldn’t stress yourself out to meet self-imposed timings.
This gives you wiggle room, should something pop up (say, the washing machine overflows, the computer crashes, or Jeff Goldblum rocks up on your doorstep demanding eternal friendship.)
And if a crisis does strike, the most important thing is to remember to stop and breathe. You’ve probably already accomplished at least one MIT — you’ll get the rest under control!
Being alive in 2020 provides chaos roughly 95 percent of the time, so it can bring you a hefty chunk of peace to know that your affairs are in order. So much is expected of modern humans that a little organization can go a long way.
However, punishing yourself will lead exactly nowhere. Self-discipline is a good thing: It’s a key part of maintaining balance, success, and health. But so are pleasure, relaxation, relationships, and hobbies.
Make sure that, among all the scheduling and listing, you block out some time for yourself, whether in the form of exercise, mindfulness, or sitting around in your pajamas playing “Crash Bandicoot” on the hardest setting.
Your to-do list should be contributing to your happiness, not dominating your life. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t complete all of your tasks. Getting up and trying again tomorrow is the real achievement.
To-do lists aren’t the only way to reach your goals. Read about a different system for success here.