Traditional to-do lists
When I think of a traditional to-do list, I think of a sheet (or scrap) of paper with a list of all the things you need to do. This is a good start, but there are a few problems I’ve found with this type of list:
- There’s no organized pattern
As soon as you think of something else, you just add it to the bottom of the list. As tasks are completed, you cross them off. Before long, the list is difficult to read and important tasks are overlooked because there are so many scribbles or checkmarks. If you’re really diligent, you might recopy the list neatly, eliminating the things that were crossed off…but before long, you’re back where you started.
- The list often becomes too long
Even if it’s not something you need to do today or tomorrow, you don’t want to forget, so you write it down. The things that must be done today are now mixed up with less urgent tasks.
- The list often ends up being more like a “wish list”
You hope to get all those things done tomorrow (or this week or “someday”) but you rarely do.
Maximum productivity to-do lists
If you want to ratchet up the productivity, create a to-do schedule rather than a mere list. Think of it as a to-do list on steroids.
If you’re using a notebook, I would suggest writing today’s date at the top of the first page, tomorrow’s date at the top of the next page, and so on for the next 7-10 days. You might also use a few pages in the back of the notebook for general categories, such as “home maintenance” or “computer projects”. This is where you’ll add low priority tasks that you hope to do sometime, but don’t yet know when you’ll get to them.
Now, each time you want to add something to your to-do list, think about when you could realistically get it done. By preplanning when you hope to tackle each task, you accomplish more of the things on your list, because your list is organized by day and each day is broken down into sub-categories. It also gives you a dose of reality when you start scheduling your day and realize that unless you suddenly grow an extra set of arms, you’ll never get all of these things done.
By giving yourself a more realistic view of what you can accomplish, you’re able to prioritize the most important things and save the rest for another day.
You can schedule your daily tasks down to the exact hour or minute that you plan to do them, or you can simply schedule them into rough time of day (morning, afternoon, evening) or type of task (phone calls, errands, emails) categories. When I’m adding something to the to-do schedule for next week, I’m more likely to list it in a “type of task” category. However, when I’m planning my schedule for the following day, I try to take all of my tasks and figure out exactly when I’m going to do them.
For instance, perhaps I’m going to block off my prep period for the five phone calls I need to make. As I’m planning the schedule for the following day, this is the point at which I’ll often discover that my task list for that day has grown too long. Trust me; it’s better to realize this before it’s too late. When this happens, I just choose the most important things, plug them into my schedule, and then cut the rest of the items and paste them to another day (preferably one with fewer tasks on the list).
Your to-do schedule can be high-tech or low-tech. Some people use portable devices like Palm Pilots, which sync up to their computers. Other people are more comfortable with a good old-fashioned notebook. My current to-do schedule is what I’d call “medium-tech”. It’s in a Microsoft Word document on my laptop. My laptop goes back and forth to school with me and even comes on vacations, so it works pretty well for me. On the occasions when I know I’ll be without my laptop, I simply print my list and go.
The page orientation of my to-do schedule is landscape rather than portrait. This makes it easier to read the entire page on the computer screen without scrolling. I also have it set up with two columns, so it’s a bit like two adjacent pages in a book. Typically, each column constitutes a day. My document is multiple pages long, because I have a column for each day, going forward about 7-10 days. This way, if I know I need to do a task but won’t get to it until next Wednesday, I can type it directly in the task list for next Wednesday.
As each day comes to an end, I delete that column. (If you’re using a notebook, you’d rip the page out, or put a big X if you still need to use the other side of the page.) Every few days, I cut and paste the template to add columns for more days, so that I always have a list for each of the next 7-10 days (if you’re using a notebook, you’d write the next few dates on top of the next pages, and write in whatever categories you use on each page).
At the end of the 7-10 days worth of lists, I also have some general categories (household maintenance, computer projects, etc.). I use these categories to remember tasks that I don’t yet know when I’ll complete (if you’re using a notebook, these category pages should be clustered at one end of the notebook).
Advantages to this method
Let’s take a moment to look back at the three problems with traditional to-do lists mentioned at the beginning of the article. How does the to-do schedule solve these problems?
- Rather than one big to-do list, you have smaller, more manageable daily lists
Each of those smaller lists is broken down into sub-categories. At the end of the day, your entire list is done and can be ripped out. If one or two items remain, you can immediately reschedule them.
- Since each list only contains a days’ worth of tasks, the list isn’t too long
You’re not distracted by tasks that don’t need to be completed today.
- Urgent tasks will be written directly into the schedule
“Wish list” type tasks can go in a separate category list (home maintenance, etc.). These serve as a reminder and you can schedule them when you have more time.
In part two, I’ll discuss in more detail some of the sub-categories you can use for your daily task lists. I’ll also give some sample templates that you can customize.