The 1-3-5 Rule For More Doable To-Do Lists

There are as many theories on keeping to-do lists as there are people who keep them. That said, there are a few rules that should always apply if you ever hope to cross anything off them.

The to-do list is necessary part of brain hygiene. And like showers and shaving, if you don't make them part of an everyday ritual, things can get a little gnarly.

Yet we have a terrible time with the to-do; seems we're often stuck in some Sisyphean situation. Nearly 90 percent of respondents to a recent LinkedIn poll said they couldn't finish up their list in a given day. And judging by the ever-expanding inventory of articles about how to hack your to-do—including excellent ones like this, this, and this—there are as many ways of seeing your to-do as there are people who keep them. But this is a good thing: If there were just one way to to-do, it would be like having a universal shoe size or sleep schedule.

But it's still a lot of noise, so the Daily Muse supplies some signal. Let's review three suggestions here.

Keep just one list

Judging by the 17 tabs you have open as you read this, your mind is a tad habituated to discursive thinking. While this hamstrings your productivity in general, such multitasking murders the self-monitoring that a to-do list represents. Fret not: you can hem in your ever-brachiating monkey mind by keeping your to-do list in one place, be it handwritten in your notebook, in a little doc in the corner of your desktop, or any of the myriad apps vying for your smartphone screen space. The key is to make a single list a dedicated habit and return to it whenever you reach a loose end.

The 1-3-5 Rule

Cooperate with your procrastination by admitting that some tasks are much more pressing than others. As Alex Cavoulacos of the Muse writes, assume that on any given day you can accomplish one big mission, three medium tasks, and five small things. Get those done as best you can. Then, as your workday concludes (which might be when you're journaling in bed), make the next day's 1-3-5. Like laying out your clothes the night before, this defuses the groggy tension of early morning decision making, which we all suck at.

Complete one cringe-worthy mission before lunch

Like Mark Twain used to say, if you eat a live frog for breakfast, the rest of the day will taste great (burp). Excuse me if I'm beating a dead amphibian, but what that means is that you should tackle your most-reviled task as early in the day as possible. This is easier because you outlined your target the previous day. By taking down that first beast, you can build the momentum to crush the rest of the day.

Why You Never Finish Your To-Do Lists at Work (And How to Change That)

[Image: Flickr user Backpackphotography]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • iterson

    Extra rules:

    1 big thing before  1 o'clock
    3 medium things before  3 o'clock
    5 small things before  5 o'clock

  • brokerchange

    I use a modified GTD system. I spill everything in my brain into an "inbox." This way I no longer worry about getting to it later because now it's catalogued somewhere

    Then I break my lists into locations:
    Home
    Work
    Grocery Store, etc.

    And into Projects:
    Blog
    Youtube Channel
    Business, etc.

    Stuff that doesn't need to get done this week goes to my "someday/maybe" list which I review every Sunday to see if anything needs to get bumped up in priority. 

    This way my lists become hyper focused and I don't get overwhelmed. When I'm at the grocery store on the weekend, I don't need to see what needs to get done on at work on Monday. My life is much less stress free now that I've implemented this system.

  • Ryan

    The idea of keeping just one list is one that I use and think it works well but I do have a minor tweak.  I have one active list and one Later list.  Anything that I'd like to get around to but now necessarily now get's put on the Later list.  Every now and then I review it and move some of the items to my Active list.  It gives me peace of mind whilst still keeping clutter nicely out of the way.