A To-Do List is a list of everything you need to do and is an excellent way of getting all those tasks out of your head and on to paper. The problem is that we always start a To-Do List with good intentions, but it often doesn’t take long for it to change from being a productivity tool to a cause of procrastination, confusion or even stress.
An unmanaged To-Do list makes it difficult to tell the difference between important tasks and tasks which seemed important when we first wrote them down. It can make the volume of work that needs to be done seem much bigger than it is, and we may end up spending more time on “busy work” than valuable activity.
So how can you make the To-Do List work for you, rather than against you?
Make a List: Towards the end of your working day, set aside whatever list you are currently trying to manage and start with a blank page. Write down everything that needs to be worked on in the next three days, both big and small. This brain dump allows you to get the list out of your head, freeing your mental capacity to do the work rather than think about it.
Pick 5 Stars: Some guides recommend that the next step is to shorten this list to 1 – 3 items to do the next day. That may work for some people, but it’s not realistic for every type of job. Instead, you can identify up to 5 items that need to be started, progressed or completed the next day and place a star next to them. These would typically be a mix of small items, which are time-sensitive, and larger items which directly contribute to a critical project, strategic goal etc. Transfer these items to a blank page, and this is your shortlist for the next day.
Scan for a Quick Win: Now I’m going to break another “rule” of managing the To-Do List by suggesting you go back to the long list and find just one item that you can act on before you finish work that day. Knowing that not only have you got a plan for the next day, but that you have also made progress today, will go a long way to allowing your brain to switch off and rest when you leave your desk.
Finish Work: It doesn’t matter if you are in an office or working from home, you can’t work 24 / 7. Agree a time with yourself to finish work and stick to it.
Act rather than React: The next day, try to resist opening your email for the hour. Use that time to take action against one of your stars before the demands of your inbox unfold before you and bring you in another direction.
Remember your To-Do List is simply a list. Its purpose is to aid you by clearing your mind and being a point of reference for the items which you are aiming to get completed. Knowing this, your To-Do List should change at the end of every working day as you reflect on what you got finished, and what new items have come across your desk.
So what are you waiting for? Make a list, mark your stars, find a quick win and then turn off the laptop for some well-earned rest!
(Originally Published in July 2018. Last Updated August 2020)