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Your to-do list can be a tool that guides you through your work, or it can be a big fat pillar of undone time bombs taunting you and your unproductive inadequacy.
If the instructions are clear, specific, and easily carried out, you're golden. If not, you'll get undesirable results, such as fear, procrastination, and self-loathing.
Instead of letting tasks you're not quite committed to loiter on your to-do list until you're sick of looking at them, move them off to a separate list, a holding area for Someday/Maybe items.
Only concrete actions you're committed to completing should live on your to-do list.
Your to-do list is not your project list. Don't add multi-action tasks to your to-do list, such as "Clean out the office." Break projects down to smaller, easier-to-tackle subtasks.
The smaller and more atomic these subtasks are, the more doable they are. Break down tasks into five-minute increments.
When you have a multi-action task, keep only its next sequential action on your to-do list. When the task is complete, refer to your project list and add its next action to your to-do list.
At any given moment, your to-do list should contain only the next logical action for all your working projects. That's it - just one bite-sized step in each undertaking.
When formulating a to-do, the onus is on your Boss self to make it as easy as possible for your Assistant self to get the job done.
Arm your Assistant self with all the details she needs to get your work done.
For example, if you have to make a phone call, include the name or number.
Just as no one wants to look at an email inbox with 2,386 messages in it, no one wants to have an endless to-do list. It's overwhelming and depressing.
Instead, keep your to-do list under 20 items. Your to-do list should be short, to-the-point commitments that involve no more deciding as to whether you're actually serious about doing them.
Although your to-do list might have 20 items on it, the reality is that you're going to get only a couple done per day (assuming that you're not writing down things like "get up, shower, make coffee, go to work...."
Make sure the most important tasks are at the very top of your list.
Schedule a 20-minute meeting with yourself every Friday or Monday to review your to-do list, project list, and someday/maybe list.
Use that time to rewrite any items that aren't broken down as much as they should be, purge irrelevant items, and move the next actions from your project list to your to-do list.
90% of the work involved when you're tackling tasks that matter is the planning.
The more you practice the art of creating effective to-do's, the faster and easier it will come to you, and the more you cross items off your list and leave the office with that delicious sense of completion.
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Ideally, create a ‘top three’ tasks at the beginning of your to-do list.
Long lists are a problem because most people aren’t aware that “we only have about three to six good hours of work in us each day.”
People also tend to underestimate how long a task takes.
Aspirational tasks, like writing a book, don’t belong on a to-do list; instead, create a separate bucket list.
Daily to-do lists should be focused. If you have a big project you want to complete, you can put it on your to-do list if you chunk it out into smaller, more attainable tasks.
If procrastination makes your list have too many items, find out what you can eliminate. For necessary but time-consuming tasks that don’t bring a lot of returns, consider adopting solutions that will do it for you.
Automating tasks you would otherwise be doing manually, is also very satisfying and can help you fight procrastination.
Sometimes it seems daunting to start a project because of its scale, which is why it’s important to break tasks down into small chunks.
Subdividing tasks allows you to keep progressing by switching tasks when you get stuck but have deadlines to meet or taking a break isn’t an option. It also allows you to circumvent boredom as you won’t get stuck in the same task.
It means deciding not to do things you'd really like to do. It also means deciding what's the most important task even when everything on your list feels crucial.
But if you can prioritize...
To-dos arrive from a variety of sources. Your boss sends you an email, you get a Slack message from IT, a bill arrives in the mail, or a coworker asks for a favor in the hallway.
In order to prioritize your task list efficiently, you need a master to-do list that contains all of the tasks you need to prioritize and complete from all of those sources.
Go through your list, review each task, and decide what you want to do with it. You have 4 options: