I compulsively make lists. Grocery lists, wish lists, top 5 lists of my favorite movies/characters/whatever (or top 20, let's be real), tons of playlists (Spotify is my friend), and of course to-do lists. Even this blog post is in list form!
Lists make my life easier. I'm able to get the jumble of ideas and obligations out of my head and onto a piece of paper or into an app so that I can see what's there and decide to do something about it. Most of us have some kind of ongoing to-do list, but are you using it so that you actually get the things on your list done? Here's a list of what goes into effective lists to make them really work. How many times can I use the word "list" in this post? List.
1. Break down overwhelming tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Is there a project looming over your head that you dread even starting? In school I would always procrastinate doing a long essay assignment. I had the irrational expectation that I should just write out a great essay from start to finish. That was so intimidating to me that I'd put it off until the last minute and stress out, rushing through the assignment and not giving it my best.
Outlines turned out to be a huge help in breaking the assignment down so I could focus on one aspect of the paper at a time. That practice translates easily when making a to-do list. Instead of having "write paper" on your to-do list (or "pack up the apartment for the move", or what have you), break that big task down and use it as a header for your to-do outline. What steps do you need to take to get it done? If it's making you particularly anxious, you can make your steps even smaller.
We tend to think doing the laundry should be simple and easy, but it's often daunting because there's more than one step involved, especially if you're doing the laundry for more than just yourself. If you break it down into the basic steps, you have a clear idea of what's ahead and you have the satisfaction of crossing out each one as you go!
- gather dirty clothes into laundry baskets
- start first load in washing machine
- start first load in dryer
- start second load in washing machine
- fold and put away first load
- start second load in dryer
- fold and put away second load
2. Use action words.
Wording matters. What is easier to envision yourself doing? "Marketing" or "post upcoming event on social media"? When you use a general, ambiguous word on your to-do list it's easy to skip over it because you're not quite sure what it is you need to do. Get specific and start with a verb. "Laundry" becomes "Fold and put away clean laundry." "Emails" becomes "Check and reply to new emails" and "archive/delete old emails". This way it's clear what you need to do and you can picture the action in your mind before you get started doing it.
3. Use a "Done List".
Crossing things off your to-do list feels great, but it's easy to mentally pass over what you've already done and keep focusing on what's still left to do. With any luck, none of us will be completely done with everything; there is always something more to do and learn in life. So take a break from berating yourself for what you haven't done and make a list of what you *have* done, even if it's as small an accomplishment as remembering to eat breakfast that day. Closing out our day with a list of what you've achieved will put you in a more positive mindset as you acknowledge the progress you make each day.
4. Benefits of a paper list
Physically writing your to-do list will help cement your tasks in your memory and crossing them off as you do them feels so satisfying! Since ideas jump around chaotically and schedules often change, a paper to-do list can get out of hand pretty dang quick. That's why I like to limit my paper to-do lists to just one day at a time. I'll check my calendar in the morning and write out my day's tasks, crossing them off as I go. That way I'm not bogged down or intimidated by the sheer volume of EVERYTHING that needs to be done.
Here's today's list, currently in progress. You'll notice that I've ignored some of my own suggestions about wording (::cough:: laundry ::cough::) and that's because I'm not perfect. I also have enough practice with some tasks to be able to leave them vague on my list and still get them done. Or at least to a point that's good enough.
5. Benefits of a list app
For big, ongoing projects using an app can really help streamline the process. Trello, Wunderlist, and Evernote are all excellent apps I've used personally and professionally. They let you sort your projects into categories, create sub-tasks and checklists, set due dates and reminders, and share the tasks with other people who are part of the project. You can edit and shuffle the list around as needed, and keep it conveniently with you on your phone/tablet/computer/Star Trek communicator. They even come with a "Done" list!
What kind of lists do you use? I'd love to hear about the planners and apps you've tried. Share your experiences in the comments!