How to write an effective to-do list to drive Productivity

If you’re a self-employed freelancer and operating from multiple locations – always mobile and without the ability to write a to-do list on a massive whiteboard on the wall above your head – then this article is for you.

If you are working for yourself, across multiple clients and projects, and need to manage your time efficiently and effectively – then this article is for you too.

And if you already have a to-do list but feel deep anxiety when faced with a massively long list of tasks that seem to extend longer than a page and threaten to take up 26 of your next 24 hours. We are here for you.

If you can’t distinguish between high priority and unimportant, and you don’t know whether to clean the fish out or complete that assignment – then we have something for you as well.

This article is about To-do lists; what they are for, what to put on them, how to write them, and how to get things done.

Why is it essential to have a To-do list?

The purpose of a to-do list will be different for everybody. Some people will need the structure of a to-do list to get anything done in a day, whereas other people require instructional lists to avoid procrastination and wasting time. Each person’s requirements will be different, and you need to understand what the purpose of using a to-do list is for you.

You may find that there isn’t one single to-do list technique that works for your specific personal characteristics or work situation. After reading our information on the perfect to-do lists, you may find it’s best to combine different approaches – don’t be afraid to adapt as you go on and find out what works best for you.

How should I record my To-do list?

Over the years I have tried multiple techniques for recording my to-do lists including the ultimately fallible post-it note method, painstakingly strict ‘record everything‘ methods, online/phone-based apps, and the simplistic ‘A folded sheet of A4’ way.

Don’t underestimate the power of a folded piece of paper. Even with my finely honed to-do list making skills – if I ever get overwhelmed with everything I need to do, then I get a single sheet of A4 and fold it into eight sections (in half, half again, and – you guessed it – one final fold).

I then take my folded piece of paper and write one project on each section. Below the project title, I write the next action – what needs doing next (more on actions vs tasks below). If I know what comes after that one, then I continue writing down that list to free up brain space.

Then I shut down all apps, programs, browser windows, make sure that piece of paper is folded so that I can only see that one project that I’ve chosen to work on now. Then I get on with it.

Try a notebook based to-do list system and invest in a high-quality Rhodia notebook and a propelling pencil. Enjoy admin by proxy by using beautiful objects that are a joy to use.

Rhodia Softcover Notebook in Red
Rhodia Softcover Notebook in Red

What tasks should a To-do list include?

The guru of the to-do list space for over 20 years has been David Allen. Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’ has been a core component of millions of bookshelves over the past couple of decades as people struggle to cope with their workloads and seek help on how a useful to-do list should work.

Getting Things Done (GTD) breaks the whole to-do list concept down into five simple steps, which we will touch on throughout this article. GTD Step 1: Capture; collect what has your attention…

Get all your to-dos in one place

In one place means to empty your mind. Start with a large clear physical space – a dining table with nothing on or a floor area that you can use for the whole day. You are going to be making piles of stuff, and you will need the time and space to see this through to the end.

Grab everything that is in effect a to-do item without you realising it. The pile of unopened mail that you still need to get to. The post-it notes off the desk, the calendar, the pile of papers in your in-tray. The other pile of papers in your other in-tray. Get it all together into one place ready to be processed.

The purpose of this stage is to help you to clear your mind and to trust your to-do system. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that you have complete and utter faith in your to-do list system.

To-do list chaos
To-do list chaos: Take one small step at a time

Sort it out

GTD Step 2 is Clarify; process what it means. This means we are going to take each thing that needs to be done and assign it to a project. We are then going to make sure that the thing to be done is an action.

If it’s not an action, we are going to break that task down until it is actions.

Tasks should start with a verb. ‘Birthday card for Partner’ is not a to-do in our world. ‘Partner’s Birthday’ is a project. The tasks (actions) could then be:

  1. Check what I bought last year
  2. Check their Amazon Wishlist
  3. Check notes of stuff they’ve casually mentioned throughout the year, possibly deliberately. (NB: always a good idea to keep a list of this stuff!)
  4. Go to town
    1. Buy Birthday Card
    2. Buy Birthday present
    3. Buy Wrapping Paper
  5. Come home
    1. Write in card
    2. Wrap present

Do you see how each task starts with a verb? We need this to make sure we know what action to take when we pick up the next task.

Grab all the stuff in your new collection space. Get a few blank sheets of paper and dedicate each sheet to one project. We can work on condensing this down later, but if you are a GTD beginner, then you’re going to need to practice first!

Pick up each thing in your pile and assign it to a project. Write down the task that needs to be done. Decide if the thing/piece of mail etc. needs to be kept to complete that task. If the thing will be needed then put it underneath your project cover sheet. If you have a load of spare folders or plastic document holders then now would be a good time to use them. If the thing is not needed anymore – throw it away.

Eventually, you should have worked your way through all of the piles, and you should now have pages and pages of paper with projects, tasks, and actions on. Now how do you sort it into something resembling a useful to-do list?

How do you organise a To-do list?

The next step depends very much on which to-do list system you decide to use. If you fancy trying your hand at a paper-based system, then you couldn’t do a lot better than paying your $10 and downloading Allen’s own GTD guide to paper-based systems. For iOS and Android systems, there are GTD setup guides in the shop for you too.

The primary challenge with the GTD system is getting your head around separating the actions you’ve now listed away from the projects they belong to. This is the part that seems to polarise people the most.

GTD Step 3 is Organise; put it where it belongs.

In the GTD system, you now assign a context to each action. For example, all actions that would need to be completed away from the home or office would be tagged ‘errand’ or ‘@errand’. All actions that involve you sending an email to someone would be tagged ‘@email’, or the actions could be tagged ‘@computer’ if you want fewer lists or you don’t have to send enough emails to warrant them having their list.

All tasks/actions must also have a due date and if possible start date. Any action with no due date gets the additional context ‘someday/never’.

All actions are now grouped by their context and separated from their projects. This is the weird bit for most people as you will now probably have lists called Email, Call, Errand, In town, At the office, At home, and Someday/Never. Your Email to-do list will have a whole list of emails you need to send that could be completely unrelated; emails about your house insurance, about the new work project, about your sister’s wedding, all sorts.

The point of grouping your tasks like this is efficiency. You are batching your actions (Henry Ford would be proud). So when you sit down at your email program, you send all the emails that you need to send in one go, and then you close the email program, move to the next list.

Most people’s inefficiency is driven by task switching too frequently.

Weekly To-do list Organisation

Ok, it feels like we’ve skipped a massive, important part about actually doing the tasks. Fear not, we’ll come back to that in a second. For now, it’s important to know that this to-do system is dynamic.

What goes on a list doesn’t necessarily stay there, and our projects and actions change on a regular basis – so must then, our list. GTD Step 4 is Reflect; review frequently.

How often you review your lists depends on your needs and your pace of work. Some people like to consider their lists at the end of every day so that they ‘download’ all their thoughts and do some planning about what they are going to accomplish the next day – block booking slots in your calendar is a hot tip for this part too. If you don’t allow time for work to be done, then you don’t allow time to succeed.

I schedule 90 minutes every Friday afternoon for a ‘weekly review’. I look through all of my lists and make sure that the actions are still needed. Because I use an online/app solution (Todoist.com), I can have all of my actions both on project lists and on context lists by using the inbuilt tagging system. This makes it easy to whiz through the project-centric lists and make sure that I have all future required actions recorded. Then whiz through the context lists and make sure that everything has a context against it (you can also search by tasks that have no context to double- check)

I also use Todoist’s email-to-list facility to help with the collection phase we previously mentioned. This functionality in combination with Merlin Mann’s 2007 Inbox Zero approach means that I process my inbox and Do, Defer, Delegate, or Delete.

If it takes me less than two minutes to complete the action – Do it.

If it will take more than two minutes but does still need doing, then Defer it – forward the email to my Todoist email address, and it puts it straight onto my to-do list.

If it needs doing, but not necessarily by me then delegate it to someone else to do. Remember the value of your time, and if you don’t know the value of your time – then let’s cover that off in another article, another day.

If you can’t do it, defer it, or delegate it, then it’s probably not essential or required. So delete it. Be brutal and place a higher value on your time than you have before. If you think it could be needed in future and can’t quite bring yourself to delete the email then archive it – but whatever happens, do not use your inbox as holding space. From now on, the inbox is a processing space only.

How to get things done using a To-do list

GTD Step 5 is Engage; Simply do. Sound simple, right? The truth is that regardless of the complexity of the action itself, engaging with this task should be simple.

Because you have followed all the steps above, and you have processed your vague projects into specific verb-based actions, then you know what needs to be done quickly.

Because you have batched your tasks, you can quickly and easily plough through similar actions because they are contextually linked – e.g. you are in your email programme and are in a ‘writing-mode’, or because you are in town and can now complete all the ‘in town’ actions in one fell swoop.

Trust the list. I can’t tell you how important this is. To reach a relaxed state of mindfulness does not require all your tasks for the day to have been completed. No, you can achieve mindfulness by knowing that your to-do list is as comprehensive as possible.

If you know that you’ve recorded every possible task that was bouncing around inside your head in your fantastic new to-do list system, then you can relax. You can relax because you know that all the next actions are sat there just waiting for you to pick up the next group and crack on with them.

To-do list Time Management – How do you complete a To-do list?

You’ve got your to-do list, and you’ve got your GTD/Inbox Zero/4Ds process. You’ve distilled all your projects and tasks into verb-based actions. How can you best manage your time for executing those actions?

Different approaches will suit different industries, personalities, and projects.

Time Blocking

Time blocking may be your best bet. Divide your day into appropriate blocks such as Focus Blocks, Admin Blocks, Social Blocks, and Recovery Blocks. This technique asks you to look at the natural rhythm of your day and choose which block is most appropriate for your energy state.

I feel the most creative first thing in the morning (before I open my emails). I try to get in two hours writing each morning before 9 am when my emails start piling up, and everyone gets into the office. It’s at this time that I stop what I’m doing, and I get washed, dressed, have a late breakfast and prepare myself for the next block of work – the less creative and more functional tasks that need completing.

You could also Time block your week with work allocated to 4 days and save yourself some 20% time to spend on passion projects. It is essential to feed the soul as much as the bank balance – maybe you could use this time to devote to some longer-term gambles?

Whichever way you cut time, we all have the same amount. So make sure that you conciously and intentionally spend your time wisely and don’t let tasks drift, knocking off the lower priority into a perpetual snooze state.

Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro Technique is based around a timer and a rhythm of work-rest-work-rest etc. The out of the box concept is that you work for 25 minutes, then forced rest for five minutes, then back to work for 25 minutes. After the third 25-minute work section, you rest for 15 minutes.

I always think of it as a to-do list version of Sprint project management. Focus on one action and complete it, then onto the next, when the timer goes. Stop. Get some thinking time, a drink, stretch the legs, and then back onto the task before you have time to get bored, distracted or make another bit of peanut butter on toast.

Kitchen Timers are simple but effective productivity tools
Kitchen Timers are simple but effective productivity tools

Eat the frog

Instead of time blocking states of mind such as creative and focus, you could also just Eat the frog; start with the most critical tasks (The MITs) and crack through it. Set a timer for the end of that block and then move on to the next task, or consciously continue the first one. Only you can know your priorities and needs on any given day.

Summary

No single to-do list system will work for everyone. But try a couple and pick one. Or try a few and combine the elements that work for you into a personalised, perfect, productive to-do method.

Remember, get everything into a single system, trust the system, train yourself to break vague ideas into actions, and efficiently execute the actions. Review frequently. Do well.

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