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How To Write To-Do Lists That Make You Happier At Work

Most to-do lists confront us with only the least motivating parts of our jobs.

How To Write To-Do Lists That Make You Happier At Work

[Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images]

You may not like planning things, but your brain does. There's evidence, for example, that the experience of planning your vacation helps you to enjoy it more when it actually happens. And as I wrote recently for Fast Company, even writing to-do lists that go uncompleted can give you a productivity boost.

But while that exercise has its upsides, to-do lists themselves remain something of a double-edged sword. Many of them still leave us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and less productive than we could be. They don't have to, though. Here's how to tweak your next to-do list so it helps you feel happier at work.

Why Your To-Do List Is Making You Miserable

Most of the to-do lists we draw up are litanies of tedious tasks. If you fill up your calendar with reminders for daily action items, you run the risk of spending all of your time focused on specific things you have to accomplish. That may not sound so bad—isn't that the point of a to-do list, after all?

Well, sort of. Like it or not, some of the things we need to get done at work are tedious, annoying, or boring. But if you confront yourself each day with reminders of only the least enjoyable parts of your job, it'll probably wind up sapping your motivation to come to work.

It doesn't help that the most mundane of your duties tend to be the most urgent, making them dominate most to-do lists. So while your agenda may be an accurate reflection of what you need to do, it can quickly become one of the least motivating tools for actually doing them.

Using Your To-Do List To Make You Happier

That doesn’t mean that you can or should avoid writing to-do lists altogether. In fact, you should probably keep planning your workday and plotting out your goals—but you might want to consider doing it differently.

In fact, planning is a crucial way to help you enjoy your career more. Research on happiness suggests that people who see their jobs as a calling enjoy their work more than those who just see their jobs as a collection of things to do. In other words, a sense of purpose matters, and a well-written to-do list can help impart it. A big part of seeing your job as a calling is recognizing the significant contributions you make over the days, weeks, and months that make up your career. So your to-do list should ideally make that easier to see, not harder.

For that to happen, you need to make sure your weekly calendar includes time to work on tasks that take you closer to making the contributions you want to make at work—for doing the things you find meaningful. When you sit down to write a to-do list, you're actually planning, even if you think you're just throwing a jumble of unfinished items onto a notepad. So take that time to include big-picture tasks on your agenda, not just urgent ones.

This takes effort and diligence. Most of us don't move toward our most significant goals automatically; if anything, we fall short of them because we're too consumed with immediate task execution. And by comparison, we frame our most important goals abstractly. So while you might really want to get promoted, finish a big project, or improve the lives of customers, these broad objectives rarely make it onto your to-do list because it isn't always clear what specific actions are required to make them happen.

Luckily, though, writing a to-do list helps you break those goals down into achievable steps—as long as you stop to consider them. The next time you write a to-do list, make a conscious effort to figure out where over the next workweek you'll be able to add those tasks to your schedule. Yes, this may involve making some tradeoffs, but that's the point. Because it already itemizes your most urgent (and often dullest) tasks, you have a built-in opportunity to see which of the most angst-inducing responsibilities may be able to get the nudge, even if temporarily.

Once you identify the recurring tasks that are getting in the way of making progress on the parts of your job that actually create enjoyment, you can gradually begin building in time for those (and, hopefully, learning which items you may be able to delegate). Researchers have found that people who are good at anticipating obstacles tend to be better at surmounting them.

As you get better at actually planning the type of work that makes you happy, you may begin to feel better about all the tasks on your to-do list, even if it still includes plenty of tedious stuff. When you look at the list, you'll recognize several items each week that relate to your core goals, which can help put the more boring tasks into perspective. That gives you a daily reminder that your job is more than just a sequence of small, boring, urgent duties to execute—because you've planned it to be.

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