To-do lists are an excellent way to keep track of outstanding tasks, and if you suddenly find yourself working from home right now when you are not used to doing so you are probably trying to make use of one even if you usually don't. After all, it's what most experts advise.
The problem with standard to do lists is they are often poor motivators. They often end up too long, too short, too vague, too confusing, overcommitted, unwieldy, stale and forgotten, or even too meticulously planned.
So what makes for a better to-do list? Here are some tips and pointers
Explain to Yourself Why Each To-Do on Your List Is Important
For many of us, to-do lists feel like a burden. They make us miserable and sap our energy rather than motivating us to get more done. This is because our to-do lists are too often just collections of boring, stressful, or plain hated tasks:
If you confront yourself each day with reminders of only the least enjoyable parts of your job, it’ll probably wind up sapping your motivation to work all.
There is a very simple solution: reframing your list to be focused around your bigger purpose. If you connect the tasks on your to-do list to your bigger purpose, they’ll feel less boring and banal and more important and motivating.
Consider adding a sentence to every task on your to-do list that explains the value of completing that task. If you can clearly define why a task needs to be done, you’ll feel more motivated to complete it.
Delete Low/No-Value Tasks and Nice-To-Dos
Another benefit of defining the value of the tasks on your to-do list: it helps you find the tasks that probably aren’t worth doing. If you can’t figure out what value completing a task will provide, you should probably just delete it off of your list.
One of the most common problems with to-do lists is that they’re overwhelming. When you’re constantly adding new to-dos to your list as they pop into your head, you often end up with dozens or hundreds of to-dos.
Every day, you have to go through all of those items to decide what to focus on next. And every day, the growing size of your list stresses you out. You may never get through them all.
Deleting low-value, no-value, and nice-to-do tasks from your list helps you create a better to-do list because it makes your list more manageable, less stressful, and more skimmable. It keeps your most pressing and important tasks top-of-mind and helps you avoid getting distracted by tasks that are basically time fillers.
Break Large To-Dos Down Into Smaller To-Dos
One of the quickest ways to get overwhelmed when looking at your to-do list is to have a list filled with monstrous tasks that will take hours, or even days to complete.
Instead of having lots of very large tasks on your lists, spend some time breaking those large tasks down into the smallest completable components.
This will not only make it easier to plan your hours, days and weeks, but it will also give you the satisfaction of seeing more completed items on your list, which should help motivate you to keep working your way through your list.
Write a “What I’ll Probably Do” List
Mark Forster, the author of many productivity books, once conducted a productivity experiment where he wrote his to-do list for the day and then put it away in a drawer. Forster hoped writing the list would be enough to make him remember what was on it and get it all done.
Sadly, when the end of the day rolled around, Forster pulled the list out of its drawer and realized he hadn’t done even one task on the list!
Thinking about why the experiment failed, Forster came up with another approach: the next day, he wrote a list of what he thought he would actually do. This was more of a prediction list than the kind of hopeful wishlist most of us make for our daily task lists.
Again, Forster put the list away in the drawer. But this time, he managed to complete every task on the list—and all without looking at it once!
The trick to this approach, Forster says, is making the list in answer to the question:
What do I actually think that I will do today?
Asking that question changes how you approach creating a to-do list for the day. Instead of planning based on what you hope to accomplish, you plan based on what you believe you actually will accomplish, which helps you create a better, more realistic plan.
Using this approach, Forster found he only got more done during the day, but he even managed to get through some tasks he’d been putting off for a long time.
If you find your reality rarely matches the plan you make ahead of time, try making your to-do list in answer to Forster’s question and see what difference it makes to your productivity.