Ah, to-do lists. The bane of our existence, the source of our stress and occasionally the symbol of our triumph. OK, I’m being a little dramatic–but those of us who’ve abided by this method of task-organization have probably felt that sinking feeling when we realize we’ve barely made a dent in our list, and it’s the end of the work day. And on rare days where we do manage to complete everything, we feel like we’re on fire.
If your list has got you feeling more stressed than triumphant lately, it might be time to modify your approach. Here are some ideas how:
1. Limit It To Six Things A Day
I remember hearing about this 100 year old “Ivy Lee” method back in college, and I’ve adopted it ever since. As James Clear previously wrote, the idea isn’t that six is some sort of magic number, it’s that by imposing a limit on the amount of tasks on your to-do list, you’re forced to make tough decisions about what’s important and what’s not. Also, the idea of tackling a to-do list of six is a lot less overwhelming than a to-do list of 20–which means you’ll be less likely to procrastinate.
2. Divide It Into Sections
There are certain tasks that are just easy to do one after another, and others require a complete switch in thinking. If we’re interrupted by a phone call when we’re heads down writing a report, it’ll probably take us awhile to get back “in the zone” after that phone call, and as a result we take much longer to complete our task because we need to allow time for brain transition. This is why lumping similar tasks together make sense; you’ll get more done in less time that way.
Fast Company writer Michael Grothaus recently tried this method. He divided his tasks between “digital quickies” (like emailing someone or making dinner reservations), “work” (writing, reporting, and pitching stories) and “real world” (personal errands like laundry or grocery shopping). Before trying this approach, Grothaus struggled to complete his to-do list. After dividing his to-do lists, he found himself crossing off every single task.
3. Try Time Blocking
Maybe you’re just not a list person, or you find it difficult to break down “making progress on that big project” to smaller to-dos. You could try abandoning lists altogether, and instead dedicate chunks of time for certain work instead.
That’s what writer Gwen Moran tried when she wanted to understand why she wasn’t getting everything done. She tracked how she was spending her time, saw interesting patterns and began to devote time slots to certain work rather than make her way down a long list. Kevin Kruse, management expert and author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management told Moran that not only does time blocking force you to work with discipline and order, it also has major psychological benefits.
According to Kruse, when we have the expectation of completing a task and we don’t, we tend to stress about them. “However, when we have all of our tasks placed into a specific date, time, and duration, we sleep more soundly knowing everything that needs to get done is in its place.”
4. Distinguish Which Tasks Are Truly Important, And Which Tasks Are Not
If you’re the type of person who just needs to write down everything you need to get done–regardless of how important or urgent they are–you can at least make assessments on their importance. If you don’t get everything done, you would have at least made headway on the things that are important.
Business coach and author Brian Tracy provides some guidance on how you can make this assessment. In his book, Master Your Time, Master Your Life, Tracy recommends we mark our tasks A, B, C, D, or E, depending on the consequences of not getting them done.
“A” tasks, according to Tracy, is something that we must do–if we don’t, there will be “serious consequences.” Things like meeting a deadline or preparing for an important meeting fall into this category.
“B” and “C” tasks are items we should do, but not doing them will only have minor (or no consequences).
“D” are tasks that we can delegate, and “E” are tasks that aren’t that necessary and we can therefore eliminate from our list. And speaking of elimination….
5. Make Sure It Includes Things We Want To Do
We’re more likely to be motivated to tackle our to-do list when it contains tasks that we’re excited to work on. Yes, there are certain “shoulds” that we just need to bite the bullet and do, but there are probably many “shoulds” that aren’t going to affect our quality of life or career if we don’t do them. By getting rid of those from our list, we create room to do more things that actually makes us happy. In the long term that is.
Psychologist Art Markman previously wrote for Fast Company, “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’s important to note that Markman isn’t saying that we should all stop doing part of our jobs that we hate; rather, he’s encouraging us to allocate some time each week to big-picture projects that contribute to our long-term career or life goals. Perhaps it’s learning a new skill that can get you on the promotion track faster or spending more time getting coffee with colleagues in your workplace in order to deepen your industry knowledge.
Markman ends by saying that we might start feeling better about our to-do list–even when it has plenty of tedious tasks–when it includes the things we want to do. These tasks “help put the more boring tasks into perspective” and remind us that our job “is more than just a sequence of small, boring, urgent duties to execute–because [we’ve] planned it to be.”