To-Do Lists: 10 Tips for Increasing Productivity

to-do-listProductivity is something we can all benefit from, and there are a lot of ways you can work to improve your productivity. To-do lists are one of many activities people use to become more productive and ensure nothing falls through the cracks. But there is a major divide when it comes to to-do lists. There are those who believe that lists help keep them accountable and on track, and those who believe that lists do nothing more than create an environment of stress.

I am firmly aligned in the pro-list camp, and my list making habits have gone through a number of transformations, changing as my business and personal needs have changed. Based on this experience, here are 10 tips I have learned that can apply to just about any type of to-do list you may use in your life to help you make your list a productivity tool instead of a time suck.

Creating a System

1. Pick a system that works for you: There are many to-do list systems, from software, to online apps, to complete project management tools, to good old fashioned pen and paper. It really doesn’t matter what you use to create your list, only that it’s something that you can understand, keep up with and mold to fit your needs. If you’re just getting started or need to revamp your current system, watch for my next post that will include a list of online tools.

While you will likely need to modify any existing systems so they work for your individual needs, you can get a solid starting point and develop new process ideas from systems that are already working for others. Watch for a future post that will provide an overview on some to-do list/productivity/information management systems you can consider as a starting point.

2. Make it pleasing to you: Possibly because of my design background, I need every system I work with to actually look good. When it comes to to-do lists, something that is pleasing to the eye and is extremely organized makes me feel good about using the system and encourages increased productivity. So be sure to pick a system that you actually like the look and feel of.

Getting Started

3. Start with a brain dump: Start by writing/typing every possible task that comes to mind. Don’t worry about making it look pretty yet, this step is just meant to get everything in one place. If you have existing lists, be sure to grab those items and pull them into your brain dump list, too.

4. Divide and organize: Once you have everything in one place, take some time to separate your tasks into categories. Your categories may be comprised of any dynamics that work for you — business and personal tasks, client projects, high-priority items, etc.

5. Break everything down into individual actions: Each item on your list should be an individual and measureable task. Instead of “Design website,” try to break it down in digestible tasks that make sense:

  • Discuss needs with client
  • Create sitemap
  • Collect site art and other business marketing materials from client
  • Create mockup
  • And so on…

It’s especially helpful when starting a new project to start with the final deliverable in mind, consider each step of the process and develop small tasks that will get you to the end point.

6. Use verbs: Every task item should be a specific act you need to do, so start everything with an action verb.

Managing Your List

7. Prioritize: Once you have your list created, look at each category and mark items that are of the highest priority. You may want to create a ranking system so you know the level of importance of every task and can sort accordingly.

8. Make a realistic “today” list: To avoid having a massive list facing you every day, it can be helpful to schedule tasks and create time-based lists – today, this week, this month, etc. And be realistic about what you can accomplish in that time period. By creating manageable and achievable lists, you will be more likely to stick with it.

9. Schedule weekly time for the un-doables: Items listed as lower priority tend to drop down to the bottom of the list, as they should. But you may find that you end up with a growing list of low-priority tasks that you keep rolling over from week to week. Scheduling regular time to act on these items will help you keep your list clean and current (and get rid of the stuff you’ve been putting off).

10. Be flexible and willing to adjust: Once you’re setup, avoid thinking of your system as being set in stone. Your life changes, so your list should be able to change as well. Keep an open-minded perspective on how to organize and manage your list in order to give your list a chance to morph as necessary.

How do you use a to-do list? What tips would you add here?

Related posts:
To-Do Lists: 12 Online Tools for Organizing Your Tasks
Task, Information Management and Productivity Systems

Image credit: Mateusz Stachowski

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  • setterm

    Personally I love just simple paper and pen, but whatever you use, the points in this article are right on the money. Especially prioritising and being flexible.

  • fattyjules

    I find it hard to beat the good old whiteboard (‘dry-erase board’ for US readers, I believe).

    Can’t take it with me though.

  • editmania

    Your categories may be comprised of any dynamics that work for you …

    “Your categories may be composed of …” or “Your categories may comprise …”

    Either is correct. The second may be better in this case.

    Good article, good ideas. Please forgive my compulsive editing. I really can’t help it.

  • ramnath

    Yes, I prefer using pen and paper.

    Square lined spiral bound pocket size writing pads were a constant companion during my college days… hmm good ol’ days!

    The accomplished items were still there with a strike-off as I never used to tear the sheets away… I felt proud looking at them later :)

  • picohax

    I’m an oddball here, I prefer tables. I use spreadsheets – a minor downside – keeping a spreadsheet open all the time takes up a bit of resources.

  • combiner

    Good article right on the spot. I prefer to start with the good old pen and paper, and then putting the weekly plan to digital form. It’s a time saver to change the plan with the simple copy & paste commands, instead of having to rewrite it by hand. The planning changed like three times in four days this week.
    Luckily, I’m using a on line solution (Google docs). It allows the collaborators I’ve given permission to edit the document, to correct the plan when needed. We also have access to it where ever we are: at home, at a client, at the office, sitting in the sun working outside, at a café etc. It’s just to bring your lap top, your mobile phone with internet access and bring the weekly plan up.
    Of course this doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility of having the planning up to date – I need to talk with my collaborators on a regular basis to check if there’s have been a change and if they have edit the plan. But it makes my job easier :)

  • Sam

    I use a few methods. I have my own hosting service so I have a personal wiki set up for managing tasks and notes, and I also use TaskFreak which is a to list software. For immediate tasks I have a paper list in my purse.

    Though to be honest, I’m still not totally satisfied with my system. I find that ultimately it becomes time to stop listing the things you need to do, and start DOing them.