To-do: find a better to-do list

Whether you write it out with pen and paper, or use an app, you probably use some kind of to-do list to keep on top of your work. After all, the to-do list is one of the best-known and most frequently used productivity tools – but does it actually make us more productive? Sure…if we’re smart about creating and using our to-do lists. But it’s a big ‘if’:  all too often our to-do lists are over-long, over-ambitious, poorly prioritized, and guilt-inducing. If you’re starting to feel like your to-do list is controlling you, rather than the other way around, here are some alternative to-do lists that might change the way you plan and prioritize your time:

The If/Then List

Here’s something we’re all guilty of: writing unrealistic to-do lists that start with a 5am workout session and have us filing taxes, drafting crime thrillers, and getting down to inbox zero all before the end of the day. Sometimes it’s possible to tick off all the items on lists like this, but other times life gets in the way, and our carefully constructed to-do lists fall apart. Enter the If/Then List:

  • If the meeting goes long, then I’ll draft one report chapter instead of two.
  • If I get in early, then I’ll take 10 minutes to organise my desk.
  • If a client cancels, I’ll use the time to follow up on invoices.

This list ensures you’ll have an achievable task on your agenda no matter how badly, or how well, the rest of your day is going

Tip: Brainstorm a wide range of ‘if’ scenarios when you make your list. That way you’ll have more bases covered!

The 1-3-5 List

1-3-5 – three small numbers that could make a big difference to your workday. Working with the 1-3-5 list, each day you should identify and plan to accomplish 1 big thing – say, preparing a presentation, 3 medium things, like working out the agenda for an upcoming meeting, and 5 small things which can be as easy as sending off an email. By narrowing your day down to 9 tasks, the 1-3-5 list forces you to identify essential tasks and focus your time on them. Working with lengthy to-do lists means you’re more likely to switch between tasks without ever finishing them. With this whittled-down list you’re far more likely to cross off each item.

Tip: If you work in a dynamic environment where tasks often arise unexpectedly, factor that into your 1-3-5 list and leave a few items blank each day.

The Have-Done List

There are two key differences between the to-do list and the have-done list. Typically, you’ll write your to-do list at the start of your day, whereas you should aim to write your have-done list at the day’s end. And, while the to-do list consists of tasks yet to be finished, the have-done list notes down the tasks you completed and shows what you’ve accomplished. Doesn’t that sound nicer than looking down a list of mounting chores yet to be done? But it’s not just a feel-good exercise. A have-done list can not only reflect what you have achieved – it’s an excellent tool for evaluating what still needs to be done. If your have-done list shows you’ve completed a big project, for example, then it’s time for the next step – passing it on to a client for feedback, for example.

TIP: Revisit your have done lists at the start of the next day. You can take stock of what you’ve achieved and plan accordingly.

By Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin.

2 comments on “To-do: find a better to-do list

  1. Pieter Jageneau

    This is a refreshing view on the old to-do-list! I find this truly inspiring.
    The ideas lead away from the dread of using to-do-lists since they rarely end up supporting you as you intended. I’ll try those approaches out for sure.

    Thanks and kind regards

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