The best laid plans can go awry when shifting deadlines, large workloads, and family schedules get in the way of even the best intentions. And while procrastinating may help us feel better right now—Netflix binges certainly beat spreadsheets as a form of entertainment—we pay for it with late nights or missed deadlines.
One of the best ways to ease into productivity and the peace of mind it affords: Make a to-do list. Lists force us to identify concrete and strategic actionable goals and help us remember and keep track of the really important information so tasks don’t slip through the cracks. Here’s how to create and maintain a to-do list that actually works for you.
MIT stands for most important tasks. After you’ve created the day’s to-do list, re-read it and note which tasks absolutely must get done that day. Then devote yourself to accomplishing those tasks before anything else. While you may not get to everything on the list, tackling MITs each day will help ensure nothing critical slips through the cracks.
Start with the task(s) you dread most
This can be a great way to begin the morning on a productive note and minimize anxiety for the rest of the day. Since we tend to put off the tasks we want to do the least, eliminate wasted time and nervous energy by getting right to it. Not only will you get the dreaded tasks out of the way, but you’ll also give yourself a boost of accomplishment early in the day.
Prepare before you start
If you need to create a presentation for the big board meeting, for example, don’t sit down to work until you gather all the necessary materials (fact sheets, data tables, etc.). That way you can really focus until it’s done, instead of getting up to grab a new item every few minutes.
Whenever you commit to doing a task, really commit. Close all internet browsers, silence your phone, and sign out of email and social media accounts. Keep your work space organized, too—clutter can serve as a distraction. By creating a space that enables you to focus, you can get tasks done quicker and get on with your day.
Productivity feels great, but it’s important not to obsess about it. Too much productivity can be a bad thing if it prevents us from taking care of ourselves, maintaining healthy relationships, or enjoying proper rest and relaxation. Be sure to schedule small breaks throughout each day to do something you truly enjoy (or do nothing but breathe). And try to unplug completely one day each week in order to recover from a busy schedule and prevent burn out. Ultimately, prioritizing downtime and self-care is one of the best things you can do for your productivity levels—by staying healthy and happy, you can remain productive for years to come.
Start over after lunch
Morning didn’t go as planned? It happens to the best of us. Instead of declaring the day a wash, commit to re-starting after lunch. A lot of things can still be accomplished in the afternoon, and doing something sets you up for a less stressful tomorrow.
Create multiple lists
Writing down everything you need to get done for the rest of your life on one piece of paper is a quick way to feel overwhelmed—and that’s a surefire way to kill motivation. Instead, break up your lists:
- A master list that outlines everything you want to accomplish down the road (for instance: take a yoga class or remodel the bathroom)
- A weekly project list that details everything you need to do over the course of each week to keep things humming along smoothly
- A daily list that outlines the must-dos for each specific day. Try to limit this list to eight items or fewer to make sure you’re not overscheduling yourself.
This practice requires you to assign due dates to each task, which ups the chances of completing tasks. Also make sure to schedule time to tweak these lists on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. While it may seem counterintuitive to spend time planning how to spend your time, categorizing tasks appropriately is a great way to free up mental space and focus your energy where it’s really needed. Aim to review to-do lists in the evening so you can hit the ground running the next day.
Break tasks into manageable chunks
When crafting to-do lists, get specific. Don’t just write “Take care of finances.” Instead, break it down: “Pay the electric bill. Set up meeting with financial accountant to discuss Roth IRA. Tally spending from last month.” Wherever possible, include the information you need to get the task done (your accountant’s phone number, for example). Aim to craft the list so every task requires only one single action. Not only does this help tasks feel more manageable, but it provides a better sense of how much time to allot for each item.
Enlist an app
Put digital tools to work for you by using a timesaving app. There is a huge range of to-do-list-enabling apps, from incredibly detailed schedule managers to location-specific reminder systems. Experiment to find the one(s) that works best for you.
Automate series of tasks
Any task that can only be completed through a series of steps qualifies as a “task series” (for instance, packing for vacation or cooking a weekly dinner). Create action sequences for any tasks you accomplish on a regular basis so you don’t need to re-create the to-do list each time you perform that action. Instead, you can just refer back to that task series whenever you need it. For example, let’s say you want to cook dinner every Sunday. Your task series might look something like this:
- Choose recipe from [favorite recipe source]
- Check to see if any of the ingredients are already in the pantry or fridge
- Create shopping list
- Create equipment list
- Gather together all necessary equipment and make sure it’s clean and functioning properly
- Go grocery shopping
And so on. Apply this tip to a monthly business presentation or organizing your office. Each time you conduct one of these tasks, simply refer back to the task series. You’ll free up a ton of mental energy that would otherwise have gone into re-creating the task series from scratch.
Make it routine
Some tasks—such as making the kids’ lunches or responding to emails—need to happen every day. Put them on autopilot by scheduling them for the same time each day. That way you won’t lose any mental effort to figuring out how to squeeze them in, which frees up your brain to focus on those MITs. As this list proves, there are many steps you can take to make a to-do list feel less daunting. But at the end of the day, all the tricks in the world can’t compete with this simple step: Just get started. Put in the legwork to create a tailored, effective task list as outlined above—and then get to work. You can do it.