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On the surface, there's not much to understand about a to-do list. It's literally a list of things to do. Or do you have to do something? Or things you want to do but otherwise might not be able to accomplish if they weren't written down? At second glance, to-do lists might be more complicated than they seem.
Complicated – and also full. There's the terrifying notion of the endless to-do list that keeps regenerating no matter how bravely we struggle to get to the bottom of it. In addition, the fear of getting to the heart of our life restricts our freedom and hinders creativity.
On the flip side, there's the surge in dopamine that comes with checking something off and that specific sense of power and control that can't be reproduced in any other way. Research has shown that tasks we haven't done yet distract us, but the process of creating a plan to get them done is liberating. A study by Wake Forest University found that people perform better on tasks when they are first allowed to figure out how to end a warm-up activity. One of the authors summarized: "If you just write the tasks down, you will be more effective."
So writing down assignments is helpful for your mind. But is there a right way to organize a to-do list? And how can you make one where you feel in control instead of being overwhelmed?
Paper vs. digital
Should you handwrite your lists with pen and paper or use one of the myriad of organizing apps available? The short answer is that both have their charms and disadvantages.
Handwriting has several useful advantages. For one, research suggests that pen writing down helps you retain information, which can help us organize our thoughts and goals more effectively. Not to mention, nothing is like removing an item from the list with a triumphant check mark. I started JotForm to create easy-to-use online forms, but even I appreciate the ease of handwriting some things.
Paper planners also have the advantage that everything is stored in one place, while apps often have to switch between them. Multitasking has a tendency to affect productivity. When the goal of an organized to-do list is efficiency, it's hard to beat an old-fashioned analog planner.
Related: To-Do Lists vs Calendars: It's OK to Have Both
But for technology enthusiasts, digital planners offer an undeniable attraction. Good ones have all sorts of useful features like scheduling tasks, syncing with your email, and creating multiple lists at once. You can spend days of your life choosing the right one – there are estimated to be more than 17 million options – but one, Todoist, is consistently at the top. Users love it for its sleek design, the ability to easily create subtasks and projects, and the color-coded deadline labels. It's also built into Gmail, Outlook, and many others.
Multiple task lists
Not all tasks are created equal and there is a big difference between "drafting a book proposal" and "text mother". Knowing this, some people suggest keeping multiple to-do lists. Writing for Harvard Business Review, management consultant and executive coach Allison Rimm explains that she uses no fewer than three lists and a calendar to organize herself, each with its own function:
The first list, she says, is for important, but not time-sensitive, projects. The second is for items that need to be completed today, and the third is a "not-to-do" list for remembering things that she consciously decided were not worth her time. Finally, the calendar is used to block the time to keep the schedule.
"Take the time to develop a clear mission – your personal purpose – and a vision of what success looks like if you want to carefully determine what's important enough to get on your list in the first place," she writes.
Choose one thing
One of the main problems with making to-do lists is that it is notoriously difficult for people to determine how long things actually take. According to one study, only 17 percent of us can accurately estimate the passage of time, which is not good for our ability to create and stick to a list of tasks.
Related: You'll accomplish more without a to-do list
Instead, I prefer what I call the "hunter" strategy. Long ago, before a taco delivery was just the push of a button, we were looking for food. A successful hunt meant getting something to eat; A failed hunt meant getting hungry. Getting food was pretty much the only item on the agenda. Instead of writing down a ton of throwaway assignments, think of one thing that you absolutely must do to make the most of your impact. The bestselling author Gary Keller also advocates this idea in his book The One Thing, in which he writes:
“Long hours spent ticking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list – a list that is deliberately crafted with exceptional results. "
How to choose a thing First, create the long, wildly unmanaged to-do list of your dreams / nightmares. Then, on a new page, write down one thing from this list that you want to do. If it's a big task, break it down into smaller tasks that you can do in a day.
Once you've achieved your only goal, you can refer back to your crowded to-do list and move on to the next step.
Kill the list completely
Any number of to-do list options can work for you. But it's also possible that a to-do list isn't your thing – and that's fine. Aside from list building apps, there are many other ways to organize your goals. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Samuel says she's taking a more personal approach. For example, she uses her Amazon Echo to quickly add items to her shopping list that can also be added by her husband and other family members when they see something running low. She keeps a Google spreadsheet for project ideas. For emails, she suggests add-ons such as Boomerang or Followup.cc.
Like any organizational tactic, this is not for everyone: “There are no doubt that there are people who prefer to have a single place to keep track of everything they have to do and who like to divide it into“ deadlines ”and“ purchases ”. Ideas and so on to keep them straight, ”she writes.
"But if you're the kind of person who gets overwhelmed and defeated when you see all of your to-do items in one place, or never caught the rhythm of a daily to-do list review, maybe it is time to move on to conventional wisdom." Rethink task lists. In my experience, exiting to-do lists can be the most productive thing you've ever done. "
The truth is that there are as many different ways to approach a to-do list as there are people. Whether it's a surgically precise system of color-coded sublists or a ragged sticky note stuck to your laptop, the best to-do list is ultimately the one that works best for you.
Related: Make sure this isn't missing from your to-do list