10 Tips for Using Lists Effectively

Michele Warg
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A to-do list can be your best friend or your worst enemy on any given day. The tasks looming may haunt you, yet you get a feeling of accomplishment once you cross off each completed project. Instead of dreading that list, learn how you can use it more effectively to boost your productivity.

1. Plan Ahead

Mornings are often hectic as you rush to get settled at your desk. Avoid writing your daily to-do list during this time period when your mind is not at its clearest. Instead, write out your tasks or input them into an application on your smartphone the evening before. With your to-do list ready for you first thing in the morning, you have a clear focus for the day.

2. Prioritize Your List

Assess the items on your list before you get started. Are they realistic? Although you may have high hopes that you can finish 10 tasks in a day, the undue pressure may leave you feeling as if you have not met your goals for the day. Take a realistic look at your list and prioritize based on deadlines and importance while considering your obligations for the day.

3. Tackle Large Tasks First

It is common to procrastinate on a large, looming task when you don't enjoy it or feel overwhelmed. However, you can use your to-do list effectively by tackling the largest task first. Once you have finished the most time-consuming project, you are more likely to sail through the remaining smaller tasks.

4. Limit Task Items

Avoid overloading your daily to-do list. A general rule of thumb is to limit the list to three items. If you find yourself consistently able to complete more, gradually increase the number each week. However, know your limitations. Not completing your to-do list can negatively affect your motivation.

5. Time Out Your Tasks

Assign time estimates to each task on your list. Track your time while working on each task to measure the accuracy of the estimate. If you find yourself off on your estimates, you can make more realistic decisions on future lists and more accurately plan out your day.

6. Create Section Heads

Divide your to-do list into sections. For example, Fast Company recommends dividing the list into columns. Make a chronological list of appointments and meetings on the left-hand side, and include your list of to-do items on the right-hand side. This helps you schedule tasks in between daily meetings and appointments.

7. Evaluate Your Energy Level

Many professionals have high hopes that each day is productive from the start until the end, but the reality is that you have varying levels of energy throughout the workday. Evaluate when you are most productive, and schedule this time to knock out your to-do list. If you know that the first hour of your day is spent answering phone calls and emails, then avoid scheduling tasks during this time.

8. Perform a Mind Dump

If you find yourself struggling to limit the number of tasks on your to-do list, consider taking five minutes to dump all your upcoming tasks into a list. Write down everything you need to do within the next week, and then put the list away, recommends Forbes. Unleashing this data from your mind helps you refocus your efforts on your current to-do list.

9. Build Productive Habits

Tell your body and your brain when it is time to work so you can complete your daily to-do list. Bargain with yourself so that you can improve your productivity. For example, give yourself 15-minute breaks to surf the Web or chat with co-workers, but when the time is up, commit to conquering your list of tasks.

10. Eliminate Distractions

Prepare your workspace so that it discourages distractions. If you need silence while working, consider wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Download applications that allow you to pause all email or social media notifications when you are actively working on a project. If possible, close your office door or put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign when you are immersed in a task.

To-do lists are only effective if you are able to develop a schedule and routine that encourages productivity. Create realistic lists and commit to completing tasks when your energy level is high to make the most of these lists.

Photo Courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Jane maybe you could try mixing it up. Tackle one or two small items first - just to get the mind working and to give you that boost that you get from completing a task. Then, tackle one of the larger items from your list and complete it all the way through. The satisfaction from that is so much greater than the gratification you got from completing several smaller tasks. You will start to wonder what you were afraid of.

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    Evidently, I need to reconsider my position on which list items to tackle first. I've been working on the small stuff first because it gives me a sense of immediate gratification for having accomplished something. How do you suggest balancing the small with the large so that the large items on my list that may take days or weeks to accomplish get done yet I still get a sufficient amount of small tasks done as well so I keep that good feeling going, or am I looking at this the wrong way?

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    It is also important to know when you are most productive. You may have to begin by tracking your time for a few days to identify times/days you are most productive, but in the long run, it can save you so much more time. For example, I know that I cannot get any work done once my children get home from school and if I try, we all end up frustrated. Instead, I etch out time in the evening after they are in bed and early in the morning.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    I agree completely with the idea of tackling the larger tasks first. The large tasks are the most dreaded, and therefore tend to get put off until the last. When you do the big ones first, it gives you a big zap of energy and self-confidence, making the smaller tasks a breeze.

  • Shaday Stewart
    Shaday Stewart

    I definitely disagree about writing lists at night, instead of in the morning. The time when you think most clearly is really an individual thing, and for me, it's always been early in the day (I'm talking, before sunrise). At night when I'm winding down is when I'm less likely to focus. So, I would revise that advice and tell people to write lists when they have quiet moments without a lot of distractions, and when they are most likely to be clear-headed and able to easily remember things. For some people it's the morning. For others, it's impossible to think clearly without a coffee and a good meal. The time doesn't matter, as long as it works well for you and doesn't cause distraction.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    How can I incorporate my most lucrative tasks into this list-making model? I freelance at home, and I need to prioritize my tasks based on what makes me the most money at a particular time. That may mean putting off large-scale tasks or delegating household chores to other people in my family.

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