We've shared many to-do list tips over the years, including how to simplify your to-do list and understand why they fail. Beyond the basics, there are some surprising ways to improve this all-important productivity tool. Here are ten such clever tricks for making your to-do list actually work for you.
10. Formulate Your To-Do List with Three Things: Must, Should, and Want
To stay productive and sane, start your to-do list with three entries: something you must do (an immediate important task), something you should do (something that contributes to your long-term goals) and something you genuinely want to do. This provides a good balance between your short-term and long-term goals and includes something that makes you happy.
9. Keep an Electronic and a Paper To-Do List to Prioritise Your Task
Everyone's trying to go paperless, but hear me out: a second paper to-do list can complement your digital one. The digital one can be your massive brain dump of every task you have to do, while the paper one can serve as your daily list to keep you focused and less overwhelmed.
8. Make Your To-Do List More Doable with the 1-3-5 Rule
Or don't make your to-do list longer than it has to be. For your daily to-dos, aim for one big, three medium and five little things you can accomplish in one day. Alternatively, use the 3+2 rule (three big and two small things).
7. Delete Everything and Re-write Your To-Do List
To-do lists can get unwieldy with tasks that you might not even really need to do. Re-examine your commitments and make better use of your time by starting over: Write a new daily to-do list (you can use your previous list as reference) keeping in mind the things that must be done versus those you'd just like to get done. Remember, your to-do list is not a wish list nor a task graveyard.
6. Turn Your To-Do List into a Story
Visualise and map out your to-dos into a story, a narrative for your day. This storytelling technique can not only help motivate you to complete the tasks, it could boost your memory and help you make better sense of your days. There are other ways to visualise your to-do list that can prompt you to act more.
5. Make a Low-Energy To-Do List
Even with a well-organised, prioritised to-do list, you might still feel like procrastinating. For those times when you don't have that much energy, consult your "low-energy" list of "nice-to-do" items that you can work on in any mood, such as cleaning up your desk or reading industry magazines.
4. Subtract One Thing From Your To-Do List
Sometimes you just have to say no. Too many tasks don't give us the space we need for creativity, rest, or just plain thinking. If your to-do list gets cluttered and overfilled, don't feel guilty about subtracting at least one item from your commitments.
3. Add Reward Tasks on Your To-Do List for Extra Motivation
We all need a little push now and then to get to work on completing our to-dos. One way to get that nudge is to create a reward task list, so for each task on your list, there's something to look forward to. (for example, "Finish top 10 on to-do list" -> "Take a 10 minute nap.") You can also sort your task list by emotion or reward for more motivation.
2. Use Warren Buffett's Two-List System
Want to really prioritise your list? Follow Warren Buffett's advice and make a list of the top 25 tasks you want to do in the future, then pick the five most important ones — and put the rest on a "avoid at all costs list". (In terms of your to-do list, make sure all the tasks are related to those top five items.)
1. Ditch Your To-Do List and Schedule All Your Tasks Instead
To-do lists help us track what we need to get done, but unfinished tasks on that long list nag at us and make us unhappy. Instead of creating a list, consider scheduling your tasks instead, perhaps with a service like FollowUp.cc to email you when you need to complete a task.
Having a due date could help you get more things done, which is the whole point of the to-do list anyway. (You might say this last point is cheating, since it doesn't upgrade your current to-do list. You can consider it the evolution of the to-do list, perhaps, when we no longer have oppressive lists but just get reminders of tasks when and where we have to do them.)