I’ll be the first to admit it—I’m a lister. And a stress lister at that. To get things off my mind I create a list on my phone and check it at least 30 times a day. God forbid my phone dies during the day. If the stress levels increase, I find myself rewriting the exact same to do list in my diary or on bits of paper. And, instead of the anxiety settling, I end up more and more overwhelmed. It’s a vicious cycle I can’t seem to break out of. If you’re anything like me, crippling anxiety aside, writing an effective to do list is KEY! Especially as we head into exam period.
So, why do some people find that to-do lists don’t work?
- After putting pen to paper (or fingers to phone as in my case), they feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things they need to get done
- There tends to be no prioritisation of items on the list
- The tasks are mixed, leading to confusion (for example, mixing home and work tasks)
- They become distressed by the feeling that the list is continually getting longer and not shorter (can relate to this)
But making to-do lists can actually be beneficial to help with planning/prioritising tasks, setting goals and feeling more organised.
Here are some golden rules on making effective to do lists. Prepare for your life to change.
Organise your chaos
Don’t just dump tasks on a page and call it done. This is a start, but now you need to reorganise, prioritise tasks and add depth. You may want to have more than one to-do list (daily, weekly, monthly list) or different categories (work, home, uni). Find what works for you!
Write shorter lists
No more than 3-4 tasks daily to avoid procrastination. Don’t try to do it all! If you have a hard time keeping your list short and your mind keeps wandering off to everything you need to do, try doing a mind dump. This is when you set a timer (2-3 mins) to write down every single thing you need to do that day or week. Write it all down, just to get it out of your head and free brain space. Then put the list away. That was NOT your to do list. It was data dump, a psychic release freeing you from the shackles of your mind.
Keep it simple and specific
Give things enough specific detail that you know exactly what to do, without it getting too long and complicated. Instead of “Call Kmart” you can say “Call Kmart to ask if they have Halloween costumes for cats.” Make sure you also include the phone number so that when it comes time to do the task, you’re not fumbling around looking for a number. Short, sweet and with the right amount of details needed for you to take action!
Break it down
Long, complex tasks put us off. It helps to break them up into smaller, more manageable chunks. So instead of “Start assignment” you can say. “Write introduction and first body paragraph for report”
Look at your entire to-do list for the day and pick 1-2 tasks that you absolutely need to get done that day. In this way you stay on top of the game and other non-essential things can be rescheduled if things come up (and you know they will).
Even before the prioritised tasks (see above). Sometimes sticking a few simple tasks on the list and crossing it off helps us feel more productive. E.g. eat breakfast, shower. I personally don’t do this as I HATE extra and clearly obvious (hopefully) things cluttering up my to do list. But whatever works for you!
Some people suggest estimating the time required to complete tasks, which may help in creating a schedule and works hand in hand with prioritising. For example: study for chemistry test 9-12 am, gym 12-1 pm, check emails 3-4pm. In this way, when time’s up, it’s up. No spending four hours at the gym procrastinating. Come on admit it, some of us do use the gym as a way to procrastinate!
Give yourself a deadline
This is helpful for tasks which aren’t particularly important or time sensitive that we still need to get done. This way there’s no excuse, but make sure to give yourself enough time.
One of the hardest aspects of making a to-do list is actually sitting down to make it. Pick a time every day, whether that’s first thing in the morning, lunchtime or right before bed, for you to organise all your tasks and determine what needs to be done and when.
Let’s be real, shit happens. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re probably doing more than you think.
If like me, you have lists on your phone, here are a few really good apps worth checking out. This list ranges from simple to state of the art apps allowing list sharing to family, friends, team members and colleagues (ntask, Wunderlist, Evernote) and to ones that are more game-like allowing you to create a personalised character and unlock rewards and level up when you complete your to-dos (Habitica, Bounty Tasker).
While being organised is important, make sure your life doesn’t turn out into one big to-do list. Hard work is great but remember to enjoy the here and now!
If you have any tips on making awesome to-do lists or use apps, be sure to share them in the comments.