Your brain is for thinking, not for storing a long list of random things you need to do.
"When you’re juggling a lot of tasks, things will fall through the cracks, and lists are amazing for keeping yourself on target and getting things done," says Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Highly Successful, and Less Stressed.
As senior health producer at Fox News, Rizzo was used to creating checklists of questions and shots to get. When she started to look for an apartment in New York, she realized how important lists can be in all situations—but only if they’re used correctly.
"A lot of people want to be list makers, but they aren’t sure how to create lists that actually help," she says. "The key is making the right lists and being strategic in how they’re used."
Here are six lists that Rizzo says are helpful to business leaders, and how you can use them to be more productive:
While a to-do list seems like a no-brainer, Rizzo says too many people fail to set theirs up for success: "A daily to-do list needs to be specific and targeted," she says. "You should only put things on a to-do list that you have the time and resources to achieve. And big goals and projects should be broken down into actionable tasks."
The first step is to pay attention to timing: Write your list at the end of the day before you leave your desk. "Look ahead to following day and determine everything that needs to happen," she says. "Identify phone calls to make, emails to send, and appointments you have. When you come to work in the morning, you’ll have a road map and can hit the ground running."
When tackling the tasks on your to-do list, it helps to match the action with your productivity levels, says Rizzo. She takes care of tasks that require more focus, such as writing, at the beginning of the day when she’s fresh. Smaller things, like phone calls or emails, are put at the bottom of the list, to be completed after lunch when her mind is more fatigued. When distractions pop up during the day that could throw you off of your game, refer to your to-do list, and reset your intention for day.
If something doesn’t get done, reevaluate the task at the end of the day. "Ask yourself, ‘Did that belong on the list for today? Do I have the appropriate time and resources? Or can I give the task somebody else?’" Rizzo says. "Leaving items undone can feel like you failed, but don’t be too hard on yourself. If it’s still important, put the task on tomorrow’s list."
Successful leaders and entrepreneurs often complete tasks they could have delegated because it will just take a minute, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, says Rizzo.
"Menial tasks, such as uploading a blog post to Wordpress or making travel arrangements, aren’t always the best use of your time and talent," she says. "Look at everything on your to-do list and ask yourself, ‘Am I the only person who can do this?’"
Anything that can be given to someone else should be put on an outsource list. While outsourcing takes extra time upfront to train someone else on the task, it saves you time later, which can be used to focus on the things you do have to do. The outsource list will become someone else’s to-do list.
Writing a list of long-term goals and dreams can help you achieve more, says Rizzo. "Even if you think it’s too big of a dream but it’s something you want, write it down anyway," she says. "When you write something down, studies say you’ll be 33% more likely to do it because it sets an intention and puts a goal into motion."
Create a long-term goals list for yourself and your company. Then create a reminder to review and reevaluate it periodically.
"I set a recurring meeting on the calendar in my phone and review my list," says Rizzo. "I cross off the things that have happened, add new goals, or delete things I no longer want to do. It’s a good exercise for achieving the things you want."
When you’re making an important decision, such as forming a partnership or entering a new business venture, create a list of pros and cons. "This list makes you dig down deep," says Rizzo. "And just because there are more pros than cons, it doesn’t mean your decision should be a definite yes."
The best way to use this list is to write it down and leave it alone. "Come back to it the next day when your perspective is fresh," says Rizzo. "It can also help to share your list with someone else or ask a friend or partner to help brainstorm more pros and cons. This list gives you the clarity you need to make good decisions."
When you are working on a project with others, create project lists that detail tasks and assign responsibilities.
"This helps you avoid micromanaging," says Rizzo, who suggests using online project management software, such as Asana or Basecamp. Projects can be broken down into actionable tasks and assigned to team members. Everyone can view everyone else’s progress, as everyone has access to all team members’ to-do lists.
"This eliminates the need for numerous emails that can become confusing, and everything about a project is contained in one location," says Rizzo.
If you have an upcoming meeting or important phone call, create a list of things you want to discuss, so you don’t risk forgetting something. Keep this list handy on your desk, so when things pop in your mind you can jot them down.
"A talking points list makes meetings more efficient, because you can be sure to address everything you need at once," says Rizzo.