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When it comes to being organized and productive, the to-do list is the ultimate tool. That’s why there are so many task management apps The 5 Commandments For Choosing The Right To-Do App For Productivity The 5 Commandments For Choosing The Right To-Do App For Productivity Different people organize in different ways. So choosing a to-do app really depends on what kind of person you are. Here are five commandments you can think about for your own productivity system. Read More  and project management systems that are focused around task lists. But at some point, you have to stop listing and start doing Stop Organizing, Start Working: 3 Simple To-Do Apps To Speed Up Your Workflow Stop Organizing, Start Working: 3 Simple To-Do Apps To Speed Up Your Workflow Are you a list lover? Stop using your to-do list as yet another excuse to procrastinate. Switch to a minimal task management system and focus on getting things done. Read More . By using these three lists, you’ll have all the list-making power you need without a complicated system that takes up too much time.

Why Make Lists At All?

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Research into human psychology has given us a lot of interesting ideas about why we make lists and how we think about productivity in general. For example, there’s a principle called the Zeigarnik Effect that states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. It’s a useful mechanism, but some people think it can also sabotage our productivity.

An oft-quoted passage from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength reads:

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as we assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done . . . Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan . . . Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

Having a clear mind Practice Mindfulness With Help From Your iPhone & These Apps Practice Mindfulness With Help From Your iPhone & These Apps Inner calm and tranquility? There's an app for that. Read More goes a long way towards being able to concentrate on a single task — this is the principle behind one of the most popular productivity systems around, Getting Things Done. But you don’t have to go quite all-out as that. You can just make these three lists, and be confident that your unconscious will shut up and let you get some work done.

The Weekly Priority List

Every Monday, take five or ten minutes in the morning, and map out some priorities for the week. These don’t necessarily have to be things that you can check off — I’ve had things like “get caught up on academic things” and “get re-committed to training” on weekly priority lists. These items are often best split up into smaller tasks on your daily task list.

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The purpose of this list is to get those really big items out of your unconscious and onto paper. Getting them written down at the beginning of the week will let you stop worrying about them, because your unconscious will know that you have a plan for getting them done — or at least you won’t forget about them, because they’re recorded in ink.

It can be easy to overdo it with this list. Don’t write down 15 priorities. Try to keep it to a handful. If you get to 10 or so, you’ll either be trying to tackle too much or be listing your priorities with too fine a granularity. Remember, these are over-arching goals and guidelines for the week, not tasks to complete. Look at this list quickly every morning and use it to inform your daily to-do list.

The Segmented To-Do List

As I mentioned before, there are tons of different ways you can manage a to-do list. There are apps that help you manage a wide range of lists, and even apps that help you turn your inbox into a to-do list Turn Gmail Into A Trello-Like Task Board With Sortd Turn Gmail Into A Trello-Like Task Board With Sortd In the modern workforce, your email often turns into your task list. Well, now you can get Trello-style organisation right in Gmail with a new Chrome extension, Sortd. Read More (this is becoming pretty popular, in fact). But making a single to-do list for the day will help you keep everything in order.

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How you segment your to-do list is up to you. I sit down with a notebook and pen 3 Paper Notebooks Worth Shelling Out For 3 Paper Notebooks Worth Shelling Out For We do a lot of writing about high-tech ways to keep track of things and manage your life. But sometimes a plain old notebook is the best thing you can use. Read More  every morning and list three high-priority tasks, three mid-priority tasks, and a number of low-priority ones. This keeps me focused on the important tasks for the day. You could segment them by context instead, and keep a list of “Home” things, “Work” things, and “Fitness” things, for example. At work, you could use “Meetings,” “Calls,” and “Projects.”

No matter how you segment your list, make sure that you keep it manageable. There’s a story of a woman who worked at the Pentagon who, when asked what her strategy for getting things done was, said that she wrote down her tasks in order of priority, and then crossed off everything below the third item. There’s a limit to how much you can do in a day, and there are almost certainly going to be emergencies or unplanned opportunities that need your attention.

The Done List

The “Done List” has been gathering momentum lately as a useful tool in productivity. If you’re not familiar with the done list, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a list of the things that you’ve accomplished during the day. What’s the point of this, you ask? Put simply, stress management 4 Ways To Take The Stress Out Of Productivity 4 Ways To Take The Stress Out Of Productivity With a few well-targeted changes, you can boost your productivity by leaps and bounds. Apply these simple methods to your life and the result is what you would expect -- better work with lesser effort. Read More . One thing that many people say causes them stress is having too many things to do or, similarly, not getting enough done. But we really don’t have a good grasp how much we accomplish in a day.

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For example, let’s say your high-priority items for the day are “plan a quarterly meeting,” “write weekly report,” and “clean garage.” If you just check those off, you have a record of accomplishing three things. But if you write down that you also answered two calls about the marketing budget, made a list of potential candidates for a hiring, sent six e-mails regarding project approval, and picked up some top-up groceries on the way home, you’ll see just how much you got done. They may not all be high-priority tasks, but they’re still things that needed to be done.

That’s why I recommend making a completely separate done list. You could just use the option in Wunderlist  which is an excellent cross-platform to-do list manager Wunderlist: Easy-To-Use, Versatile & Cross-Platform To-Do List Manager Wunderlist: Easy-To-Use, Versatile & Cross-Platform To-Do List Manager Read More , or another to-do app to display completed tasks, but then you miss a lot of the things that you accomplished, but weren’t planning to do. These things make up a big proportion of your productivity, and they shouldn’t be neglected. You actually do more in a day than you might think!

Get More Done!

Of course, everyone has their own effective task management strategies. Maybe you want to make a monthly list. Or not segment your task list. You might want to make an estimate of the amount of time spent on each item in your done list. No matter how you need to adjust the recommendations above, feel free. What’s important is that you find the system that works for you. These three lists are a great place to start trying to figure out what works best.

Which lists do you make on a regular basis? What systems do you use? Have you tried this combination of lists? Share your thoughts — and list-making tips — below!

Image Credits: To do list. Woman writing a ‘to do list’ at her desk with a cup of fresh coffee (edited) via Shutterstock, R/DV/RS via flickr, Black pencil on a daily plan. Horizontal, photo via Shutterstock, Successful business woman with arms up – isolated over a white background via Shutterstock.

  1. 2Deuces
    January 4, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    There is another dimension to the A, B, C.. priority list and that is to classify task not only by urgency but also by importance. We all have goals that are important for us but usually not for the company we work for. Learning a language, visiting a friend, writing a book, etc. It is easy to lose sight of those goals unless we take the effort to remind ourselves of them. I have tried to use the A, B, C, method to classify my day, but I try to put the occasional AI (A Important) item which I do before I go to the B (Urgent list). It is tough and stuff still get dropped, but how successful is a time management system if at the ned of a month or year we have not done anything we think is truly important.

    • Dann Albright
      January 5, 2015 at 4:28 pm

      Yes, the importance/urgency distinction is an interesting one! When we think about productivity, we often think of our jobs and things that NEED to be done, but it's also important to keep our personal lives in mind. There are a lot of things that we SHOULD do because they're good for us, give us pleasure, or help us relax.

      I agree that it's tough and that things get dropped—especially if a number of urgent things come up during the day. But you've brought up a great point here! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Caroline W
    December 19, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Hi. I really like the idea of the 'Done List' - that seems an awesome way of seeing exactly what you have got done in a day and the sense of achievement that would bring. I may just add a special Done List to my Google Keep!

    I have made many attempts at using Task Management apps and have always done what you said 'not' to do which is write down too many tasks and consequently be unable to complete them.

    But, the 'Done List' is great and would increase motivation - for me anyhow! :)

    • Dann Albright
      December 20, 2014 at 10:49 am

      The done list is a really great thing for motivation, I find. Just making super long to-do lists makes me feel unproductive, which isn't great for motivation. I highly recommend trying out the done list. Let us know if it helps you!

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Tor Refsland
    December 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    My pleasure, Dann.

    I am blogging about goal setting, time management and productivity on my website. You should check it out. You might find some helpful tips ;)

    Tor
    timemanagementchef.com

  4. Tor Refsland
    December 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the long answer, Dann.

    Experts say that the 2 hours after you get out of bed in the morning is your most productive hours. I have started to do my income generating tasks, writing content, the 2-3 hours after I get out of bed (first breakfast, then writing).

    You could also work in 45 hours sessions, and take 10-15 minutes break between each session. I can relate to the part where writing content really burns the energy.

    I do understand what you are saying, that many of your tasks doesn`t have any serious consequences (if they aren`t done). However, if none of your tasks are more important than the others, then none of your tasks are important.

    I really think that you should try to put your tasks in A, B, C category. If they fall inn under the same category, you can prioritize the tasks within the same category.

    You could for instance have 10 tasks that all fall in under category C, but you should rank them from C1 to C10, so you know where to start.

    That means that you should not do a C2 tasks, before you have completed a C1 task, and not a C3 task before you have completed a C2 task.

    The real kicker when it comes to productivity, is to follow a to do list when you are working. Brian Tracy says that every 1 minute spent in planning, saves you 10 minutes in execution. Furthermore, a task without a deadline will most likely just end up further down on the to do list (undone).

    If you don`t have deadlines on your tasks, create a deadline for them, so that you can get them done.

    As most people, I too struggle with these kind of issues each day. It doesn`t matter how structured you are or how long you have been following a good time management system. The struggle and the procrastination is around the corner every day.

    However, I can say that it becomes a little bit easier regarding having the self-discipline to do the necessary tasks each day, as long as you keep on doing it.

    Self-discipline is like the fire in a fireplace. Once the fire has been started, it doesn`t take much wood to keep it burning. On the other hand, if the fire goes out, you will have to start from scratch and ignite the fire again.

    Tor Refsland

    • Dann Albright
      December 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      Interesting ideas, Tor! I might have to try to prioritize my tasks. I currently put them in three groups; 3 in high-priority, 3 in mid-priority, and a bunch in low-priority. Maybe I should prioritize them even further.

      I'll give it a shot soon and let you know how it goes! Thanks for all of your advice—it's been very enlightening!

  5. Tor Refsland
    December 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Dann,

    what do you think are the main reasons why you switch back and forth between your A,B and C tasks?

    Tor

    • Dann Albright
      December 4, 2014 at 11:11 am

      Hm . . . that's a good question. I think there are a number of reasons. First, I sometimes have a pretty limited attention span (especially around the end of a week or a long stretch of busyness), so switching helps keep me working instead of getting distracted doing other things. I also really like learning about and experiencing a lot of things, so focusing on one for too long can get boring.

      Second, I'd say that the categories aren't always that clearly delineated. Because I'm a freelancer and rarely work on tight schedules, there aren't many things that I do that have serious consequences for not being done. Usually the worst consequence is an email saying "Hey, this was supposed to be done yesterday," or "Can I get those ASAP?"

      Finally, I switch between writing activities and non-writing activities fairly often because writing can be quite taxing. When I write all day, I'm pretty mentally exhausted by the time I call it quits. When there are other things that need doing, like statistics, cleaning, or exercising, I'll use them to take breaks to keep my mind fresh.

      There are probably other reasons, too . . . I'm really interested in this question now! I'll keep thinking about it and let you know if I come up with other reasons. Do you deal with any of these issues yourself?

  6. Tor Refsland
    December 3, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Great article, Dann.

    My best tips regarding time management and to do lists are:

    1. An easy temporarily to do list
    When I am in a hurry, I write notes on my phone, and I transfer those notes to my master to do list at the end of the day.

    2. A master to do list (the to do list for each day of the week + future todo tasks)
    I use a excel spread sheet (which is my master to do list) - saved in dropbox (so I can access it from anywhere).

    I Prioritize the tasks using the ABCDE method:

    A :Tasks I must do - serious consequences if it doesn`t get done
    B: Tasks I should do - mild consequences if it doesn`t get done
    C: Tasks I could do - no consequences if it doesn`t get done
    D: Tasks I delegate
    E: Tasks I never do

    Here is the kicker: you never do a B task before you have done alle the A tasks, and you never do a C task before you have done all the B tasks, etc.

    Apply the 80/20 rule: you need to identify each day, which 20% of the tasks on your to do list will give you 80 % of the results.

    My mantra is to help people work smarter, not harder - so they can achieve more by doing less.

    Tor Refsland

    • Dann Albright
      December 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      Tor,

      Thanks for the detailed comment! It sounds like you have a really well-organized task management system. I the five levels of your method, too—it makes a lot of sense to organize them that way. Personally, I have a lot of trouble with doing all of the A tasks before the B tasks, all of the B tasks before the C tasks, and so on. I find that I generally need to switch back and forth fairly often.

      However, if you have a very long list of tasks, I can see how your method would work really well! I also totally agree with the 80/20 rule in this particular case. There are a lot of times when the top 20% of my weekly task list is going to get far more results than the rest of it.

      Thanks again for your comments!

  7. Tina
    December 2, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Awesome article, Dann!

    To the story about the woman working for the Pentagon, I would add Warren Buffet's 2 List strategy, at least for long term planning.

    • Dann Albright
      December 2, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Glad you liked the article! I had never heard of that 2-list strategy. I really like it! I'll have to try that for some long-term goals. Can't have too many lists! :-)

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