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 and project management systems that are focused around task lists. But at some point, you have to stop listing and start doing. 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?
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 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.
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 (this is becoming pretty popular, in fact). But making a single to-do list for the day will help you keep everything in order.
How you segment your to-do list is up to you. I sit down with a notebook and pen 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. 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.
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, 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.