3 Types of Lists That Actually Help You Be More Productive
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When it comes to organization and productivity, to-do lists are the ultimate tool. But at some point, they turn into yet another excuse for procrastination. Who needs so many to-do lists anyway? The three types we have listed below will do. They’ll give you all the list-making power you need without a complicated system that takes up too much time.

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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 look at productivity in general. The Zeigarnik Effect is a case in point. It 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:

“It 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. That’s 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 stick with these three lists and be confident that your unconscious will shut up and let you get some work done.

1. The Weekly Priority List

weekly priorities list by cal newport

Every Sunday, take 10-15 minutes to map out your priorities for the upcoming week. These don’t have to be things that you can strike off your list. For example, you can have items like “catch up on academic things” and “recommit to training” on weekly priority lists. These items are often best split up into smaller tasks on your daily task list.

The purpose of the weekly list is to get those really big items out of your unconscious and onto paper.  Write them down at the beginning of the week. You can then stop worrying about them because your unconscious will know that you have a plan for getting them done. At least it can be sure that you won’t forget about them because they’re recorded in ink.

Keep the weekly priority list short and simple—three to five items should do. Remember to stick to over-arching goals and guidelines for the week, not tasks to complete. Scan this list every morning and use it to inform your daily to-do list.

2. The Segmented To-Do List

a list of tasks in Gmail's tasks panel

Making a single to-do list for the day will keep everything in order, and there are plenty of apps available to help you manage this list. Choose an evergreen favorite like Trello or Wunderlist or stick to a super simple to-do list tool.

How you segment your to-do list is up to you.  One option is to list three high-priority tasks, three mid-priority tasks, and some low-priority ones.

You could also segment them by context and keep a list of “Home” tasks, “Work” tasks, and “Fitness” tasks, for example. At work, you could use “Meetings,” “Calls,” and “Projects.”

A third option is to use your inbox as a to-do list How to Turn Gmail Into a To-Do List and Calendar With a Chrome Extension How to Turn Gmail Into a To-Do List and Calendar With a Chrome Extension Looking for an easier way to connect your emails or to-dos to your calendar? Look no further than Handle for Gmail. This Google Chrome extension will fit into your routine and boost your productivity. Read More .

No matter how you divide your list, make sure that you keep it manageable. There’s a limit to how much you can do in 24 hours. Besides, you can be certain that you’ll have to deal with unplanned interruptions of various sizes on any given day.

If you want to simplify productivity, here’s an idea that can help. It comes from the story of a woman who worked at the Pentagon. When asked what her strategy for getting things done was, she said that she wrote down her tasks in order of priority and then crossed off everything below the third item.

3. The Done List

an example of a 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? Stress management. Having too many things to do and not getting enough done are both stressors in their own way. That’s why it helps to know how much you have managed to do in a day and also, what needs to go on or stay off your to-do list in future.

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 check those off, sure, you have a record of completing 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 emails about project approval, and picked up a few 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 tasks that you needed to take care of. Knowing that you have done them can be a source of satisfaction. Tasks like these make up a big proportion of your productivity, and you shouldn’t neglect them. You actually do more in a day than you might think!

Get Everything Done With Minimal Stress

Of course, everyone has their own task management strategies. Figure out an effective one for yourself by using the three lists above as a springboard.

Are task lists turning out to be counterproductive for you? You can be productive even without a to-do list How to Be More Productive Without a To-Do List How to Be More Productive Without a To-Do List Could your to-do list be holding you back? Many highly productive people say yes. It may be time to kill your to-do list! We show you what to do instead. Read More !

Explore more about: GTD, Productivity Tricks, Time Management, To-Do List.

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  1. Adam Hall
    January 30, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    SimplySend.com is also good. It's a free estimate and invoicing app designed for contractors that lets you create detailed estimates, quotes, proposals, and invoices using your mobile phone, tablet, or computer. You can pull from commonly used line items, like bundled items/services, retrieve standard pricing, and create detailed estimates and take signatures and payments and send PDFs straight from your phone.

  2. Courtney
    August 18, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Well, considering the interesting big red bars throughout every article on MakeUseOf, as well as a minimum of 2 embedded links per paragraph, I end up with about 15 tabs open ("open in new tab - just let me finish reading this article first"). I completely forget I'm in the middle of installing some software, or that I need to follow up with a doctor's portal before they close, etc etc etc. I have yet to find a TODO methodology, list, or app that trumps my never ending curiosity.

  3. Siobhan
    June 10, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    As below, I am excited about keeping a "Done" list.
    I really do get so focused on what I haven't finished, that I can really forget the things I did, and did well. This is very helpful to me. I am still a pen and paper person. Not sure where the DONE list will be posted, but looking forward to working it out as a motivator - maybe take a photo of it on my phone and check it regularly?

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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!

  8. 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?

  9. 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!

  10. 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! :-)