For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been on a mission to create the perfect to-do list. I’ve tested multiple apps from Evernote, Any.do, to Wunderlist. I’ve used physical and digital post-its. Earlier this year, I even attempted to keep a bullet journal. It didn’t last long–I stopped having the patience to draw symbols and make my pages colorful and pretty. Eventually, I realized that the thing that worked for me is The Ivy Lee Method–a very simple system where I write down no more than six things I want to get done that day, in the order I want to complete them.
There’s a strange psychology behind the to-do list. On the one hand, a 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that writing down what we want to do makes us more likely to do it. But on the other hand, it’s also more likely to make us feel bad if we don’t do it, as Any.Do CEO and founder Omer Perchik pointed out. Psychologist and regular Fast Company contributor Art Markman also noted that sometimes, we have to do things on our list that we don’t want to do. And looking at those lists all day isn’t exactly motivating.
Which means that a to-do list is only good for us when it helps us get stuff done. But finding the perfect one that works for us will take some trial and error. Here are some ideas on different ways that you can organize your list–so if one method doesn’t work, just try another one!
Method #1: Divide Your List Into Sections
Ideally, we’d be in complete control of what work we have to do when we want to. But that’s not always possible. We might be in a role that requires us to attend a lot of meetings, or perhaps we have remote coworkers that we have to call at an inconvenient time. To actually get stuff done, we have to work around these realities.
Robert Pozen–senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours–divides his lists into three sections. The first section lists out the events, meetings, and calls he needs to attend that day, and the second section lists out what he hopes to get done during those appointments. The third section list out his to-dos that don’t fit either–items that need to be done but don’t have a slot in his calendar. He then works through those tasks on his down time throughout the day.
Method #2: Batch Similar Tasks Together
You probably have responsibilities that require completely different thought processes. For me, writing a story and answering emails require two different mental muscle, so I try not to do one right after the other. Rather, I group similar tasks together, taking into account when my energy level is at its highest. Because I have to concentrate a lot more when I’m writing and editing, I tend to tackle those tasks in the morning. Dealing with my inbox, on the other hand, is time-consuming but requires less deep focus. So that’s reserved for the 3 p.m. afternoon slump.
When freelance writer Kat Boogaard tried this method, she found herself spending more time organizing her to-do list. But, she also found herself spending less time on the tasks itself. She wrote, “I can’t even adequately explain how many minutes I saved by not having to constantly open and close a bunch of different documents and browser tabs.”
Method #3: Use The SUG Methodology
One of the reasons why many of us end up with a long, uncrossed off to-do list is because we don’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. The SUG methodology, as consultant David Nour previously wrote for Fast Company, requires that you ask yourself the following questions before composing your list:
- Seriousness: How important is this task or issue?
- Urgency: How long will it take to complete?
- Growth: Will this issue get worse if I wait to tackle it?
Arrange the three categories in a column, and then for each task, determine if it ranks “high” or “medium” under seriousness and urgency, and “yes” or “no” under growth. Having this in front of you, as Nour writes, allows your task to prioritize itself. To go a step further, you can also ask yourself the following questions before tackling each task:
- Is this something that only I can do?
- Are there any ways to automate this task?
- Is there an opportunity here for me to mentor others?
Method #4: Write A Different List For Projects, Goals, And Tasks
Sometimes, we don’t make that much headway on our to-do list because certain things take longer than others. Writing a 20-page proposal, for example, is not the same as sending a follow-up email. As Stephanie Vozza previously wrote for Fast Company, big projects should be broken down into smaller, actionable tasks. You can even assign responsibilities to others if it makes sense to do so. A goals list is also helpful, as it allows you to check whether what you’re doing day to day is in line with what you want to achieve in the medium and long-term.
Method #5: Make It Public
If you’re the kind of person who does better when you have external accountability, you might want to consider sharing your to-do list with someone. This can be especially helpful for the freelancers, solopreneurs, and remote workers who don’t have bosses, coworkers, or clients pestering them about getting things done. As Lydia Dishman previously reported for Fast Company, a 2015 study found that “more than 70% of the 267 participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement (completely accomplished their goal or were more than halfway there), compared to only 355 of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.”
Method #6: Design Your Day Rather Than Manage Your Time
For former Google manager Thomas Davies, getting things done is about shifting your thinking from “managing” time to “designing” your workday. Davies previously wrote, ” Sure, it’s partly just a shift in mind-set–from small-scale tactics to big-picture strategy–but it can be transformative.”
Davies organized everything into quadrants. For him, these were: people development, business operations, transactional tasks, and representative tasks (i.e., speaking at a conference). He said that this approach allows one to identify what they most enjoy about their work and which tasks have the most impact. “While you’re planning your week, you can build in tasks from the quadrant you find the most energizing, thereby helping you get more done,” Davies wrote.
Method #7: Include Unschedulable Items
Sometimes, things come up at work and you just need to get them done right away. Michael Pryor, cofounder of Trello and head of product at Atlassian, recommends that you leave at least a 30-minute window open (or add “unschedulable tasks” to your list.) For Pryor, it’s not just about dealing with interruptions and tasks that come out at the last minute. He told Jared Lindzon, “Sometimes the best moments of creativity happen while I’m passing by someone’s office or having an informal, unplanned lunch.”
Method #8: Create A “Done” List
Speaking of unexpected tasks, when we’re so caught up in urgency we don’t always take the time to write things down. So at the end of the day, we often look at our long list of undone items and…feel bad that they haven’t been completed. Even if we’ve done 10 other unexpected tasks that were more important.
Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne started keeping a second list to record his progress throughout the day, whether those items were on his original list or not. He wrote, “This has given me an extraordinary feeling of productivity and fulfillment, and I’ve found it helps me sustain my productivity throughout the week, whereas previously I would be “knocked down” a little by the fact I sometimes had extra things come up that I needed to complete.”
Method #9: Create A Love-To-Do List
It’s not always realistic to have a to-do list that contains only items that excite you. But while you can’t get rid of tedious tasks, you can structure your day so that it contains more tasks that you love to do.
In a previous post for Fast Company, freelancer Daniel Dowling wrote,”It’s true that work is still work–it can’t all be fun, which is why your employer pays you to do it. But building more “love” into your to-do lists isn’t about trying to change all that. It’s just a strategy to consciously and regularly do more of the enjoyable things you already do (haphazardly) over the course of a workweek. That way you have more energy and inspiration to excel at what you do. And like anything else, it takes discipline.”