To-do lists are like the bumpers on a bowling alley lane—they keep you in the lines and on track during the workday. However, not all to-do lists are created equal.
To-do lists that are too simplistic can slow you down and waste time. Look at the example below:
- Write blog post
- Call Brian
- Edit new articles
At first look, it seems fine—tasks for the day written out. However, the items are both vague and simplistic. When looking at this, you may ask yourself: What articles am I going to edit? How many do I have time for? How long will it take me to write that blog post? What is it about? Will I only check email once today? What am I talking to Brian about?
Suddenly, that to-do list is causing more problems than it’s solving. Avoid these issues and make your to-do lists more effective by including the following six things on every one.
Checking things off your to-do list is one of the best ways to stay motivated throughout the day. When you check an item off your to-do list, you feel successful, which sends a rush of dopamine into your brain and motivates you to do it again:
“When dopamine flows into the brain's reward pathway (the part responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation), we not only feel greater concentration but are inspired to re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place,” explains Monica Mehta, investor at Seventh Capital.
Most to-do list apps allow you to check items off your list, and you can even add boxes to your handwritten to-do lists (I do this!) to experience the same effect.
We include tasks, and maybe even phone calls or meetings on our to-do list, but do you include workday “me” time: brain breaks? These are just as important as the other tasks you have to get done, if not more so. Why?
Daily brain breaks increase productivity by up to 34 percent, as reported by The Office Club. Meaning, if you want to get everything else done, you need to make time for short 10 to 15 minute breaks—and if they’re not on your to-do list, you probably won’t take them:
“We tend to put things on our list that we need to do or owe to others. It is just as important to put tasks down that you owe yourself. What do you need to do to take care of you? Add it to your list,” suggests Craig Jarrow, owner of Time Management Ninja.
Take it a step further and write what you’ll do during your brain break, like take a walk, get more water, make a personal call, make an appointment, etc.
Avoid wasted time by adding all pertinent details to your to-do list. For example, if you have a call at 8am, include information such as: name, phone or conference number, meeting details, reference links and more. Whatever you’ll need for the call, put it on the list.
Instead of scurrying into your inbox to find this information 10 minutes before the call, you can work until the phone rings and be totally prepared. Not only does this boost efficiency, but you also sound more professional when you can pick up the phone and jump right in.
Yes, you’ve delegated the task, but if you’re still the stakeholder, it should remain on your to-do list: “Just because you delegated a task to someone else does not mean that you can forget about it. Keep the delegated task on your list until you have confirmation that it is completed,” says Jarrow.
If it throws you off, keep a separate list of delegated tasks to track so you don’t forget. This is even more important if you’re in a management position and need to check-in with employees or offer help and guidance.
It’s easy to get caught up in a task and lose track of time when you’re in the zone: “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other… Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger,” explains Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his Ted Talk.
How many times have you been “in the zone” on a project, only to realize you’re still working on it three hours later—but you have five other things to get done and barely any time to do it now? Instead of letting yourself run away with your time, set limits for every item on your to-do list. For example:
- Sales deck editing – 30 mins.
- Practice onboarding walk-throughs – 1 hour
- Write blog post: How to Broaden Your Content Calendar – 2 hours
- Prepare and send email announcement to Brian, Sarah and Tyrell – 1 hour
If you don’t finish the task, you can consider taking more time to do so—or decide to move on and finish later that day or week.
Your “don’t” list is just as important as your “do” list. Experts at Success.com explain:
“The problem with to-do lists? Things just get in the way! Here's the fix: Alongside your to-do list, create a ‘to-don’t’ list. These are things you need to not do in order to accomplish your tasks for the day.”
Keep your don’t list right next to your do list, preferably right next to one another, so the tasks don’t go unnoticed or forgotten. Some other good “don’t” tasks might include:
- Don’t check email while working on a task.
- Don’t eat lunch at my desk.
- Don’t lose track of time in between tasks.
Time to Do, Do, Do
With these tips, your to-do list will be more effective, making you productive and efficient with your time. Take control of your day once and for all with a to-do list you can count on.