It might sound really simple; simply write down what you have to do, and then do it, right? Well, there are many different methods to creating a to do list, depending on what kind of work you have and how you operate.
There are 5 important aspects to every effective to do list:
- The to do list should be complete. If you don’t have everything you need to get done on there, and are still working from memory throughout the day, your to do list is ineffective and you may not end up getting done what you really need to.
- Your list should be feasible. While we all have an infinite amount that we’d like to get done in a day, but it’s not feasible to have 200 items on your to do list. You need to learn to pair it down to something that is manageable. A manageable list looks different for every person on any given day. On a completely free day, it’s usually feasible for me to have a list of 30 smaller items; but, if I’m having an off day, it’s only feasible to have 10. On a busy day, maybe you only have 5 items, and that is completely reasonable.
- The list must be time-stamped. It’s important to put time stamps on each item on your to do list. This ties in to #2 – if you have an idea of how long it will take to complete a task, you’re much more likely to be able to make a more feasible to do list. At the end of your list, tally up how long it’ll take you to do all of the items on medium to maximum efficiency. And from there…
- Your list should take “buffer time” into account. Buffer time is time that you leave unscheduled in case your efficiency wanes, something comes up, or something takes longer than you anticipated. Buffer time should typically be anywhere between 1-3 hours, depending on how much work you have. Buffer time is NOT mealtimes or relaxation times, that is a separate time slot and should not be taken up by work. If you end up with excess time due to buffer time because you do complete your list in the time range you expected, you can choose to spend more time on something, add a couple bonus items, or reward yourself by doing something you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had the time. So, basically buffer time is a win-win: if you need it, you use it; if you don’t, you can chill for a bit.
- Every item in the list begins with a verb. This is a pretty common tip among productivity experts. Saying “Read Great Gatsby chapter 8” is better than writing “ch. 8 Great Gatsby” because it gives you a sense of what you’ll be doing, and makes the item more actionable. Actionability leads to productivity, so always begin your lists with verbs!
So, now you know what aspects need to be put into your to do list. Now, it’s time for the process. This is the process I use on weekdays when the work list is especially hectic. It can get really stressful, but when I make a list like this, my stress turns into empowerment and I get excited about the upcoming day because I know exactly what I’m going to do and how it’s going to get done.
- The first step is the brainstorming phase. To brainstorm, take a BLANK sheet of paper (yes, no lines) and write two categories: school and other. You can add categories if you need to (for instance, if you have a big side project going and you have multiple items to complete for that project in one day, add that as a category) but I do not advise having more than 3 categories – we don’t want to be specific here. This is just a big brain dump of all the stuff you have to do. Write in a list form every specific item you need to accomplish.
- Second, you want to evaluate your list. This consists of a few things.
- First, you want to write a time estimation by each item, like we talked about in aspect 3. Answer the question: how much time will it realistically take to complete this task well?
- Next, tally up how much time it takes to complete everything on the list. After that, make a simple sketch outline of your day – mealtimes, meetings, wakeup/bedtime, personal time, family time, etc. Evaluate how much time you have to work.
- Compare this time to your projected task time. If you have more task time than work time, then you need to prioritize: cross out items until you have a reasonable estimation. Don’t fudge the numbers and say, “well, I could spend less time on this… or this” and keep your original list. This will just make you stressed – be brave and make the choice of what to do, so you don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
- Once you have your finalized list, with a good amount of buffer time, number each item in the order that you want to get it done. This will require some thought – you don’t want to do too much intensive work back-to-back, but you generally want to get more important tasks done first, or during your most productive hours. Find a balance between these two to form a plan that will avoid burnout and promote success.
- Once you have that all set up, your rough draft is complete! Now, get out your fanciest paper or to do list pad and write out your final draft in the order that you wrote on the brainstorm. It’s important to keep the time stamps on this draft, and even put your schedule in the margin if you work best on a schedule. If that stresses you out, then don’t put it, just make sure you keep up with your time slots as best you can.
- Finally, do the list! The whole process usually takes me about 15 minutes, but it’s infinitely worth it to me. I like to do it the night before, and that gets me excited for the next day. Wake up, do your thing, and when you come to your work time, focus on the first item. Take it one task at a time until you’re done. If you find it helpful and not too stressful or distracting, try setting a timer to see how close you are on your estimations (definitely do this the first couple times to get a more accurate idea of how long your work takes). If you don’t want to count down for each item, try setting an hour timer or doing Pomodoro-style sessions, setting expectations as you set each timer. For instance, you project for items 1-3 to take 60 minutes, so you set a timer for 60 minutes and see if you’re done with all three tasks by the end of it. Be sure not to get down on yourself if you end up not being able to get it done in the projected time – that’s why you left a buffer, and now you have a more accurate idea of how long it’ll take!
5 aspects to your list, and 5 steps to take to carry it out. I’ve found this system to be ideal for those big, stressful work days.