6 Secrets Of Super Productive To-Do Lists
Productivity is closing loops

"Our mind will remain fixated on an unfinished task, causing our mental and physical health to suffer too. Upon completion we are freed from the burden of this task."

Don't simulate your day

Procrastination researcher (that's a thing) Tim Pychyl has found that we tend to trick ourselves with the act of listing. We feel like we've accomplished something--look, a list!--without actually doing anything.

Mind your mental energy

Simulating your productivity would be fine--if you had unlimited energy. But we don't: The mental energy we have cycles throughout the day, and every time we make a decision, we erode those energy levels, ending up with decision fatigue, that sense of ugh-I-can't-do-anything.

Condense your list

As Getting Things Done author David Allen recently explained, prioritization governs proper productivity. So our lists should be similarly prioritized.

Use your (analog) materials!

If we want to get focused, one old and obvious hack isto first go analog. What's nice about a notebook and a pen is that your friends and colleagues can't assault you with cat videos and humblebrags as you organize your day, unlike anything connected to the Internet.

Make sure your to-dos are actions

Every to-do should include a verb--otherwise you won't do it.

6 Secrets Of Super Productive To-Do Lists

While it may appear simple, the to-do list is a many-splendored thing. Here are half a dozen ways to make yours splendid.

Just as there's a difference between typing and writing, convulsing and dancing, and noshing and tasting, there's a difference between emailing yourself about every project you're worrying about and making an effective, actionable, stress-reducing to-do list.

It's a matter of cultivating our taste for productivity, appreciating the nuance of getting your day well done. And Divya Pahwa at the ooomf blog has done some homework on the high-brow hustle--let's dive into it below.

1) Productivity is closing loops

You know that feeling when you hear a song during the morning and it stays in your head all day--until, perhaps, you hear it played to the end? That icky open-loop feeling is what psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect, Pahwa notes.

"Our mind will remain fixated on an unfinished task, causing our mental and physical health to suffer too," she writes. "Upon completion we are freed from the burden of this task."

Some prescient app makers have taken this into account, allowing you to offload your I-need-do-this-later feeling into your phone--it was one of the key insights that shaped Mailbox, as CEO Gentry Underwood explained to us earlier this year.

2) Don't simulate your day

But Pahwa has bad news for us too: Procrastination researcher (that's a thing!) Tim Pychyl has found that we tend to trick ourselves with the act of listing. We feel like we've accomplished something--look, a list!--without actually doing anything.

It's kind of how like if you read The Great Gatsby you feel like you've lived through the Jazz Age without leaving your living room. By writing out a super-detailed to-do list, you've simulated your daily doing. So your brain is cruelly satisfied, but your work is left undone.

3) Mind your mental energy

Simulating your productivity would be fine--if you had unlimited energy. But we don't: The mental energy we have cycles throughout the day, and every time we make a decision, we erode those energy levels, ending up with decision fatigue, that sense of ugh-I-can't-do-anything.

So if you write a long list of vague to-dos, you'll end up exhausted and undone.

4) Condense your list

Citing our emphatically finite stores of daily energy, Pahwa recommends listing three tasks for a given day and getting those done. We'd like to expand on that.

As Getting Things Done author David Allen recently explained, prioritization governs proper productivity. So our lists should be similarly prioritized.

Our favorite method is the 1-3-5 Rule:

.... 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.

5) Use your (analog) materials!

If we want to get focused, one old and obvious hack is to first go analog. What's nice about a notebook and a pen is that your friends and colleagues can't assault you with cat videos and humblebrags as you organize your day, unlike anything connected to the Internet.

Pahwa goes a step further and recommends using the humble notecard and Post-it note. Why? Because if you're making short, crisp lists, then you should use a short, crisp writing medium. The space, we know, shapes the work.

6) Make sure your to-dos are actions

Every to-do should include a verb--otherwise you won't do it.

Pahwa's take:

... instead of “find movers” try “call mom and ask her to suggest a mover.’” Or “start and finish research for Tim” try “Do a journal article search using the terms: XYZ.”

So what we need to do with any big project is de-tangle what the most immediate step in getting it done is. There's a name for this skill: process thinking, which is a must-have for any project team.

So next on our to-do: study process thinking.

Hat tip: ooomf

[Image: Flickr user Adrien Leguay]

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16 Comments

  • Cher Cabula

    Seems like I've been doing it all wrong. Will definitely tweak my to-do list based from this post from now on.

  • Chris McElroy

    Just something to add to Fast Company's to do list. As long as you use Discus Me and many others will never log in or share. Good rule; "Make it easy to share your content". Not signing into two different things just to do you the favor of sharing your content.

  • Chris McElroy

    Left out prioritizing your list like in the Franklin Planner System?

  • Tpwalker20

    I recommend the author of this article to put "proof-reading" on their "to-do list". I believe her name is Divya Pahwa, not Pehwa...

  • Mikael Cho

    Awesome post Drake. Thanks for the practical advice, like the 1-3-5 rule, and tying in apps like Mailbox that are helping to organize the digital bits in our lives. 

  • Johnk

    I use to do lists all the time.  It's the most effective tool I have. You write it down, then focus and do it.

  • AH

    After searching high and low, I finally found the app Errands. It is only for iPhone and iPad (would love to see a desktop version). It allows you to enter, manage and organize all you items. Even has an pesky alarm that you can control when the reminders come.  

  • Waymonbonner1

    I put everything on the list, prioritize and check off what I have done. Then carry over undone items. this allows longer term planning and short term list of to-do's

  • Sandra

    Your forget the calls we receive during the day and the call for follow up with others.that's is the more that break up our to do list.

  • Betterwords4you

    Peter Drucker said there should only be one item on a to-do list. That forces us to really prioritize, and focus completely on that priority item. I just can't see the point of knowing what you plan to do when you finish something more important. Situations and resources are simply too volatile. 

  • Johnk

    Maybe it depends on the work.  I make very detailed lists, almost like a checklist.  It works.  I get things done and have an idea how much more work needs to be done until completion.  But, I'm a tech, not a manager. 

  • marykparker

    It definitely depends on the work. If you consider the tasks of a nurse, it's all lists: assessment, vitals, pain (and pain reassessment), then answering call lights and the lists associated with that....

  • Cynthia

    I put anything I need 'to do' on my calendar...I pick a time spot and go for it.

  • LC

    I got too distracted by that excruciatingly adorable bunny and forgot my to-do list. Thanks.