How To Simplify Your To-Do List And Make It Useful Again

The to-do list is crucial to productivity, but between all the task management apps on offer, competing productivity methods and random life hacks, chances are your list has become cluttered and complicated. Here’s how to take it back to basics and craft a to-do list that actually helps you get things done.

Title image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge

Hacking productivity can be fun and useful, but at a certain point, it can easily become too much and you spend more time hacking your to-do list than you actually spend doing stuff. If that sounds like you, then it’s time to revisit how you manage that list. (If your list is under control, congratulations! You don’t need this post.)

Some people think to-do lists are a waste of time, and that they become guilt-inducing drugs that hinder you from actually being productive. Some say you should be able to remember everything you have to do.

We disagree: if you have the right attitude, a to-do list can be a great “backup” for the tasks in your brain. I find that if I write my tasks down, I’m far less stressed because I know I won’t forget anything, and when I’m done with one task, I can move right onto the next without reorganising the list in my brain. Plus, to-do lists perfect for those little tasks that easily fall by the wayside because no one wants to do them (such as paying bills).

Just because your current to-do list is blown doesn’t mean you can’t get back on track and save yourself a lot of trouble in the future. Here’s what you need to do.

Pick The Right Medium

How many to-do apps have you tried in the past year? If your answer is more than three, it’s too many. Pick one and stick with it. It shouldn’t be too hard to pick one based on the devices you use and what you’re willing to pay. Check out our Hive Five on the subject, and choose one that appeals. We’re going to use Wunderlist in the screenshots for this post, since it’s our favourite, but the strategies we use should work in nearly any to-do app. If you find an app is too much trouble, pen and paper or a plain text file are also great alternatives.

Whatever you end up with, make sure it’s easy to use. The quicker you can add and remove tasks, the more time you’ll actually spend doing them. You should never spend more than a few seconds in a to-do app at any given time. If you are, you’re falling back into that pit of over-organising.

Add And Organise Your Tasks

Now that you have somewhere to record your tasks, make sure you’re doing so in a truly useful way, not one that simply creates another list hanging over your head. We’ve covered a lot of this territory in our guide to making your to-do list doable if you want a detailed walk-through. Here, we’ve simplified things a little so you can slowly ease yourself into your own productivity method. Right now, we want to only think about the most important features which make a to-do list useful. Here are the things you’ll want to keep in mind.

Break Big Projects Down Into Actionable Tasks: You’ve heard this before, but it’s a vital step. If you need to find a new apartment, then adding “Find an Apartment” to your task list isn’t going to help. Instead, add the first step of that project. Maybe that’s “Research insurance costs” so you can narrow down a neighbourhood. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something actionable that you can do in just a few minutes. When you finish that, you can move on to the next task in a project.

Add Any Info You Need To Get The Task Done: Include phone numbers, links and other info you’ll need to start getting the task done. That way, if you’re sitting around with a few minutes to kill, you can jump on that task without having to open your browser and find the number.

Separate Work, Personal, and Other Tasks Into Categories: One of my biggest to-do list problems is mixing personal tasks and work tasks on the same list. Most to-do apps have a way to separate these. Some apps call it a “context” tag, others have separate “lists” with tabs so you can switch between each. That way, you can view just your work to-dos from 9-5, and your personal to-dos when Saturday comes along and you have some free time to kill. (If you’re using the pen-and-paper method, you can simply create each list on a separate piece of paper.)

Some also recommend adding a “project” tag to your task list, so you know where it fits in the larger scheme of things. I don’t do this, as I find this crosses in the line into “too complicated”, but if you find that this approach makes things easier, go ahead and add that too. [clear]

Give Each Task A Priority: It may seem silly to assign arbitrary numbers or letters to your tasks, and you shouldn’t think of these as mega important, but giving each task a simple 1-4 when you create it makes your to-do list organise itself. That way, when you get to work and look at your to-do list, you don’t need to think about what to do first — you just start at the top of the list and start working your way down. Remember to factor both urgency and importance into the priority. Again, don’t overthink this — you’re just giving your to-do list the ability to organise itself.

Keep The List Short: If you have too many tasks on your list, the whole thing will start to feel overwhelming and you’ll run into that guilt-inducing drug problem again. The shorter you keep your to-do list, the more focused you can be on the present. Some say keep it under 20 items, while others say keep it down to three. Don’t think about it too hard — you’ll know if it’s too big or not when certain things don’t get done or when you feel like the list is hanging over your head.

Focus On The Present: One of the best ways to keep your to-do list short and doable is to avoid far-off future tasks. If you don’t need to think about it for a few weeks, put it on a separate list (or better yet, your calendar) and worry about it when it requires your attention.

Make Sure Tasks Get Done Every Day

So now you’ve got your initial task list down, it’s time to actually get to work. You shouldn’t have to mess with your to-do list too much from now on, as long as you commit to the simple principles outlined above. Check things off as you finish them, add new tasks as they pop up, and don’t spend too much time pruning — all that’s going to do is distract you from your actual work. If you find you need to constantly go in and prune, you need to figure out what it is about your system that’s inefficient and get rid of it. If you aren’t sure what to do, err on the side of simpler methods.

Each day you should be checking off a number of items. If you aren’t, there’s something wrong with your to-do list (or you aren’t getting anything done). If you need to, set aside a bit of time at the end of the day to quickly evaluate what you want to accomplish tomorrow, make sure those items are at the top of your to-do list, and make sure they get checked off the next day. Don’t overburden yourself (after all, new tasks will always crop up during the day); simply make sure your list is getting used and that tasks aren’t sitting there for too long. If you have to, purge it at the end of the week and start over to make sure it never stops being useful.

Other ‘Life Hacks’ You Can Add Later

None of this is to say that the “life hacks” we share every day are useless. It’s just that it’s easy to go overboard and make things too complicated. Everyone works differently, and some of those little tips — when used sparingly — can make your tasks a lot easier to accomplish. Once you have the hang of your to-do list and using it feels like second nature, here are a few things you might start experimenting with one at a time to make things more efficient.

Again, you don’t need to incorporate all of these. Once you get used to having a to-do list that actually works, you may find one or two areas that need improvement, and that’s where the above hacks can come in handy. Pick one or two that fit into your workflow, if necessary, and keep moving. Again, the more time you spend experimenting and pruning, the less time you spend actually getting things done. Photo by David Chico Pham.

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