This is Why Your To-do List Isn’t Working.

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One of the best pieces of advice you can be given if you want to get yourself better organised and more productive is to write down everything you need to get done on a single list. That simple act of getting everything on your mind out and onto a list will immediately remove a lot of stress and give you a better sense of control.

Our brains are not very good at storing reminders and are terrible at reminding us to do something at the right time. I am sure you have noticed this when you discover you need to buy more coffee while making your morning cup of coffee, only to forget to do so when you come home at the end of the day. Your brain reminds you to buy more coffee when you go to your cupboard the next morning and try to make your morning coffee. Very frustrating and a good example of why you should not be relying on your brain to be your to-do list.

Creating an endless list

Unfortunately, when you do start to write your to-dos down the list can become endless. The initial brain dump can be very stress relieving, but it does raise other issues. The biggest of which is once you have all the things you have to do written down is completing those tasks. Sadly, life does not stop just because you have written everything down. Life continues and your to-do list continues to grow. If you are not completing your to-dos faster than to-dos are coming in your list is going to get longer and longer and that is why so many people give up writing to-do lists. It becomes a never-ending cycle.

This is one of the reasons why David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology has endured so long. It does not focus on one central list, it creates lists for the different areas of your life. A list of tasks for when you are working at your computer, a list for when you are at home and a list for when you are with your partner for example. This methodology reduces the number of tasks on your task list to only those tasks you can complete now because you either have the tool or are in the right place or with the right person to complete the task.

Be very clear about what you want to do.

There is another reason why to-do lists sometimes fail and that is the way you are writing your tasks. If you write “coffee” onto your to-do list, it is not clear what you need to do. If you have a crazy day of meetings and crises, when you see the word “coffee” on your list at the end of the day it can be hard to immediately understand what you need to do about coffee. Likewise if you write “banking” on your to-do list on Friday afternoon with the intention of doing something at the bank on Monday, when Monday comes round and you see the word “banking” on your list, you are going to have to think what you have to do about “banking” and often you will have completely forgotten what that was.

To overcome this, change the way you write your tasks by adding an action verb. For example, instead of writing “coffee”, write “buy more coffee on way home” or instead of writing “banking” write “update bank book at bank”. Keep it simple and keep it clear.

I understand when you collect a task you are often in a hurry and this is why doing a mini-review at the end of the day is important. You may have collected a task into your inbox which says “Jane design approval” so when you do your mini-review you can expand the task to something like “talk to Jane about next month’s article design approval”.

When I sat down at my desk this morning, I saw the task “write first draft of this week’s blog post”. It was clear and left me in no doubt about what I needed to do. Had I just written “blog post”, that could have meant many things. It could have meant I needed to edit a blog post, or read a blog post or find a suitable image for a blog post.

When you write tasks out in a clear, action orientated way, you create lists that give you a much better indication of what you need to do and how long it will take. Writing a first draft of a blog post takes me around ninety minutes. Going to the bank to update a bank book would take around twenty minutes and buying coffee on the way home from work would take five or ten minutes. This means when I look at my to-do list for the day, I not only know instantly what I need to do, I also have a good idea how long my tasks are going to take me.

Taking the time to create a to-do list that is clear will work better for you. No longer will you need to stop and think what you meant when you originally wrote the task, you will know immediately and you will find you will be able to better plan out your day giving you less stress and less overwhelming.



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My purpose is to help 1 million people by 2020 to live the lives they desire. To help people find happiness and become better organised and more productive so they can do more of the important things in life.

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