Are you a list maker? I know I am! Lists are imperative to keeping me on track. That being said, I often find myself wondering if we (list lovers) truly know what an effective to do list looks like and the purpose behind it?
So many times we have to do lists that just drag on, or we have a “suggested” to do list running in our heads, notes written here and there, a lost list at the bottom of our purse, I’ve learned that just the effort of writing them down doesn’t guarantee that those ideas will ever be fully realized.
Is your to do list just a long line of things you know you should be getting to, but you don’t?
Before we really get into mastering it, the first step in creating a truly effective to do list is just that… create it! Whether it’s online or digital, or you’re like me and like the feel of paper under your fingertips, find where you can have a comprehensive list of the to dos and tasks that need to be accomplished all in ONE place.
No more post-it notes here and notebook over there and lost list in your tote and random ideas stored in your phone. Those can be good things if you need reminders (especially for other people,) but for the purpose of an effective to do list and ending the cycle of NOT accomplishing your goals, you need ONE place to manage that system and keep it all in plain sight. This is your foundation.
Now, let’s get to the why, the actual reasons, that the things you’ve had on your list might not be getting done and how to change that.
5 Ways to Master an Effective To Do List: And Why Most People Don’t.
1. Schedule your priorities.
I know this seems like a basic principle, and if you think that… you’re right! But the thing is, we often get it backwards. Many times we look at our schedule and try to prioritize what’s on there, instead of the other way around.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey
I wrote about this in more depth in an article called The Juggle Struggle in our summer edition of The Fresh Edit Magazine (which if you have downloaded yet, GO DO IT! It won’t disappoint!), but I wanted to mention it again, because it’s that important. When we don’t schedule what is a priority in our life, then our schedule becomes filled with other people’s priorities and we lose out on time for the things that truly matter to us. In turn, it causes our to do list to be filled, and usually with things we’re less than thrilled to accomplish, causing frustration and lack of motivation.
Before anything else, get your priorities on your schedule and use that to create a more effective to do list.
2. Break it down.
If you’re feeling stuck, it may be because you’ve got a big project on the list and it’s not broken up into it’s most effective, smaller components. For many people this is what breaks the flow of an effective to do list and causes a standstill through feelings of overwhelm.
If an item on your list is more complex than a simple to do, it won’t be an effective step. When you list a project, you won’t start it until you break it down into it’s component parts.
For example, “clean out closet” may be a priority for you, but to add it to your to do list effectively, break it up into smaller components (unless that is the ONLY thing you’ve put on your list for the day). Instead of listing the entire project as a line item on your to do list, figure out what some of the simpler steps could be. “Gather hangers, boxes and laundry baskets” could be one line item; and think of the rest of the steps in these terms. That way you have a place to start, with natural stopping points and you can start a project without the overwhelm of having to accomplish it all in the same, short time period.
3. Get it on the calendar.
Sometimes the reason a to do list stays a “running to do list” instead of being mastered, is the fact that we don’t actually assign a moment in time to get it done.
This kind of circles back to scheduling your priorities, when we have things we want to accomplish but don’t actively set aside time to do it, then other things will naturally fill the void. It can be as simple as getting lost in emails or scrolling social media, or cleaning out the refrigerator (I’ve done ALL of those many times to avoid items on my actual list before,) but the clock will tick and time will pass and we’ll realize that we didn’t accomplish our task.
So think about, “How can I calendar this task… When will I do it?” so that nothing else will compete for that time slot. We want it to no longer be just an idea, but an appointment with yourself to make it happen. When you make the time in your schedule, even if you have to break it into different components (like we mentioned), you’ll be able to get it done.
This one can sound a little strange, but sometimes there are things on our list that we truly don’t know where to start or HOW to get it done. In this case, break down your steps by adding a learning or research step and let that be the first in your series of steps.
For example, if I need to send out a pitches for a month of travel, I don’t write that as my step. I need to break it down and let “find PR companies for X,Y and Z” be the first in my series of steps. Overall, sending pitches can be one big, long process, so I know that if I break down the steps and let the researching part of it be it’s own line item, I can fit that in to a much smaller portion of time and I won’t have to wait until I’ve carved out a longer work session to get it done.
As another example, I’m taking a course on building my own online course. In order for me to create a course, there are a lot of steps involved… and right now? I’m carving out the time into my calendar for the research and learning portion of it. The next steps for me will be to carve out time in increments of the smaller steps in order to accomplish the larger goal.
The same can go for any project. With a home project, maybe the first step to a big item on the list that needs to be fixed or repaired is searching YouTube for the tutorial, or researching a part or calling the manufacturer. Give yourself the space to breathe and take a little weight off by breaking your overall goal down and letting the research be a step that you can cross off on your way to the finish line.
5. When you really don’t want to do it.
We all have things that show up on our list that we really just don’t want to do. When this is the case, many times we avoid it by doing everything else we can think of… and then the item just moves around from to do list to another to do list, adding unnecessary stress and weight.
Mark Twain has been famously quoted as saying that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
Whether he first said that or not, for many of us, an unwanted task is often the one we procrastinate in accomplishing. Our “frog” is usually a pressing or important task, and one that can give us a big, positive impact on our lives. It’s imperative for us to establish what those “frog” items are in our lives and find a way to get it done.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when one of those ugly frogs is rearing its head and threatening your effective to do list:
Is this necessary?
I’m giving you permission to give yourself grace and eliminate a task that is truly just not necessary (and really I’m saying that because you’re the one that needs to give yourself the grace and permission to eliminate a task). This often happens when someone else has an idea and we adopt it as our own. Really examine and see if this is a necessary thing in your life. Does it serve you? If not, get rid of it.
Can someone else do it?
If someone else could be paid or persuaded to do the task, then outsource it. There are some things that you just have to do yourself… but there are also a LOT of things you don’t have to do. Whether it’s hiring someone to help, calling in a professional or persuading your kids to take on a task, leverage your resources!
Can I establish a reward?
If the item on your list can’t be eliminated and can’t be outsourced… and it’s something that you really need to do, then consider connecting it to some type of small reward. Why do we do this with our kids? Because it works! It can be really easy to overlook how powerful this can be in our lives, but when we tell ourselves what the reward can be when we finish a task, our brain is naturally wired to work towards getting it done.