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How to make a to-do list that works

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Experts come to the rescue of those who are guilty of spending more time making lists than actually accomplishing tasks

Most of us know the satisfaction of a crossed-off to-do list item (and the nagging weight of a task unchecked). But how do you avoid the chaos of dozens of little pieces of paper or a digital document that requires endless scrolling?

We spoke with experts to help us.

Stick to a simple method

The purpose of creating lists and organising systems shouldn’t be to create extra work, said Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant and author of Organizing from the Inside Out.

A colour-coordinated list with stickers and extras could work well for one person but might be distracting to someone else. Someone may find comfort in an Excel spreadsheet, but it may cause stress to others. The method doesn’t matter as much as its usefulness.

“You want to use a list as an asset, not as a way to delay doing what’s on the list,” said Stephanie Shalofsky, founder of the Organising Zone in New York.

In terms of where you do the organising, Morgenstern said it’s totally up to you.

Test out different approaches, but stick with something you’ll use consistently. For people who are more tactile and visual, she said, a paper planner or notepad is a good place to start.

Digital methods might make more sense for people who need remote access to their lists, who are planning for others who need access or who are agile with computers, Morgenstern said. Any digital system needs to integrate with your calendar, she added.

Rashelle Isip, a professional organiser, keeps a paper pad for personal tasks and keeps work tasks on a digital list to create separation.

Categorise and prioritise

If you’re just starting to get serious about your organisation game, Ellen Faye, a strategic planning and productivity coach, recommends beginning with a simple methodology that you can easily add to as you get busier.

Don’t bother putting down tasks that are automated, such as brushing your teeth. “Some people say to write everything down, but not everything needs to go on the list,” Faye said. You can start by writing everything down, she said, and then cut it down.

In her practice and in her personal life, she separates what she wants to accomplish into four categories based on the task’s urgency and value:

  1. Critical: Whatever needs to be done right away – for example, if rent is due today.
  2. Hot: Tasks that have to be done in the next two or three days.
  3. Sooner: Everything else needs to be done soon but can wait until after the previous two categories are done.
  4. Later: Something you need to finish that doesn’t fit into the above categories.

Faye uses a notepad that she divides into four quadrants, one each for “personal”, “work”, “self care” and “personal growth”, and prioritises tasks using the above categories. If an item remains on your list for a while without being completed, she says, take some time to reflect on why and decide whether it’s something you can get away with not doing.

When you’re laying out your tasks, think realistically about how long each one will take and assign a time to it.

“The biggest mistake people make is not asking how long things take.”

Tasks vs goals

It’s fine to put “learn to play the guitar” on a list, but without an action, that directive isn’t helpful, said Liz Sumner, a life coach. Instead of jamming numerous vague goals into your day-to-day, Sumner recommends creating some time in your schedule to think about what you want in the longer term, whether that’s a week, a month or a year. Breaking down larger goals into manageable pieces can be done by assigning small tasks.

It’s the system… not you

The measure of whether an organising system works is whether you’re accomplishing the tasks you need to do and finding time to do activities that make you happy. The goal, Sumner said, is to achieve a balance across the different areas of your life. A key reminder, Sumner gives her clients is to try to approach tasks with enthusiasm and patience and to remember that not every method works for everyone.

Tying consequences and rewards to tasks helps them get done. “Think about the reasoning behind it and ask ‘how can I find the “I want to” in that task,’ ” she said.

If items are left undone, and your list is falling by the wayside, set aside time to check in with yourself to evaluate what’s not working. Is it too complex, or is it so simple that you’re forgetting basic tasks? Perhaps you don’t like the system or the medium you’re using. A refresh could get you back on track.

Different methods work for different periods of life, too, Isip said. “A to-do list is a snapshot of a moment in time,” Isip said. “It’s important for people to understand that over time, lists will change.”

The Washington Post

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