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Finished! Mission accomplished! Yet it's so easy to let a whole day or week go by without knocking one task off your list. How does that happen? Well, your to-do list can be a tool that guides you through your work, or it can be a big fat pillar of undone time bombs taunting you and your unproductive inadequacy. It all depends on how you write it.Think of your to-do list as an instruction set your Boss self gives your Assistant self. Like a computer program, if the instructions are clear, specific, and easily executed, you're golden. If not, you'll get undesirable results, like fear, procrastination and self-loathing. Today I've got some tips on how to write a to-do list that makes getting your stuff done dead simple.You are the boss of youAt any point during your work day you are in one of two modes: thinking mode (that's you with the Boss hat on) and action mode (that's you with the Personal Assistant hat on.) When a project or task comes up, the steps you've got to take start to form in your mind. Now you're in thinking/Boss mode - the guy/gal who gives the orders. Your to-do list is a collection of those orders, which your Assistant personality will later pick up and do.So when you're wearing your Boss hat, it's up to you to write down the instructions in such a way that your Assistant self can just do them without having to think. GTDer Michael Buffington called this "writing tasks that you can follow as if you're a robot."How to order yourself aroundSo how do you make your to-do's doable? When it's time to add something to your list, stop and think it through, using the following guidelines. * Break it down. The best way to make yourself avoid a task like the plague is to make it a vague monstrosity. The Getting Things Done productivity system defines projects differently from tasks: projects have multiple sub-actions. That's an important distinction - internalize it, because your to-do list is not your project list. Don't add multi-action tasks to it, like "Clean out the office." Break it down to smaller, easier-to-tackle subtasks like "Purge filing cabinet," "Shred old paperwork" or "Box up unneeded books for library drive." Because Assistant you is going to run for the hills when Boss you says "Clean out the office." * Work through projects using next actions. If you've got a multi-action task - that is, a project - only keep its next sequential action on your to-do list. When the task is complete, refer back to your project list (again, separate from to-do's) and add its next action to your to-do list. At any given moment, your to-do list should only contain the next logical action for all your working projects. That's it - just one bite-sized step in each undertaking. * Use specific, active verbs. When you're telling yourself to do something, make it an order. An item like "Acme account checkup" doesn't tell you what has to be done. Make your to-do's specific actions, like "Phone Rob at Acme re: Q2 sales." Notice I didn't use the word "Contact," I said "Phone." Contact could mean phone, email, or IM, but if you're taking out all the thinking and leaving in only action, your verbs will be as specific as possible. Literally imagine yourself instructing a personal assistant on her first day on the job what you need done. * Keep your list short. Just like no one wants to look at an email inbox with 2,386 messages in it, no one wants to have an endless to-do list. It's overwhelming and depressing, like there's no light at the end of the tunnel. I keep my to-do list under 20 items. (This morning it's only 17 tasks long, and I'd call myself a busy person.) Does that sound like too little? Remember, your to-do list isn't a dumping ground for project details, or "Someday I'd like to" items. These are tasks you're committed to getting done in the very near future like the next 2 weeks. Keep your projects and someday/maybe items elsewhere. Your to-do list should be short, to the point commitments which involve no more deciding whether or not you're really serious about doing it. * Keep it moving. While my to-do list is only 20 items or so, it's 20 items that change every single day. Every day 2-5 tasks get checked off, and 2-5 tasks get added. Remember, your to-do list is a working document, not some showy "look how organized I am!" thing that quietly gathers dust because you're off doing real work which isn't written down anywhere. * Prioritize. While your to-do list might have 20 items on it, the reality is you're only going to get a couple done per day (assuming you're not
writing down things like "get up, shower, make coffee, go to work..."). So make sure those tasks are at the very top of your list. How you do this will depend on what tool or software you use to track your to-do's, but do make sure you can see what you need to get done next at a glance. * Purge. Just like you should be able to see what tasks are top priority on your to-do list, you should be able to see what items have been on your list the longest as well. Chances are you've got some mental blockage around the tasks that have been sitting around forever, and they've got to be re-worded or broken down further. Or perhaps they don't need to get done after all. Deleting an item from your to-do list is even better than checking it off, because you've saved yourself the effort. * Log your done items. Like any good assistant, you want to show the Boss exactly much you've gotten done. Make sure you stow your done items somewhere so you can revel in your own productivity. Also, your "done" list is a great indicator of whether or not your to-do list is working: if more than 2 days goes by without a new done item? It's time to revamp your to-do list and get back to best practices.Practice makes perfectThis probably sounds like a lot of hand-waving for simply writing something down on a list, but 90% of doing anything is the planning, and that's true for even the most trivial tasks. Like any good habit, practice makes perfect. The more you practice the art of creating effective to-do's, the faster and easier it will come to you, and the more you'll be crossing items off your list.CreditsMany of the concepts listed above (especially those of Next Actions and Projects) come from David Allen's productivity bible, Getting Things Done. Also, Merlin Mann's 2part feature on building a smarter to-do list (part 1 and part 2) and his followup article for Macworld magazine in July of 2006 (especially the second page) inspired and informed this post.Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, is happy to check this article off her to-do list. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Wednesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Geek to Live feed to get new installments in your newsreader.WED JUN 20 2007BY GINA TRAPANIAT 12:47 pm 20,560 viewsread more: * Email * Email apps * Feature * Geek to Live * Procrastination * Productivity * task management * To do list * To Do Managers * TopMail2Friend Permalink icon Digg iconCommentsNo commenter image uploaded mkroening says:Great tips. I've been working on different ways to group and organize my todo lists for a long time. I've finally found a system that works for me - using [www.vooo2do.com. I can add these tips you've mentioned t... 06/20/07 01:08 PMNo commenter image uploaded laurencohen says:Love today's featured article. As a new mother (5 month old son named Harry); new homeowner of a "fixer-upper" and a new business owner (launched a website- ilivesports.com 5 weeks ago) I can certainly appreciate the challenges of the never ending "to do list." Most days I go to bed wishing there were more hours in the day. Your comments although basic remind us Type A's to keep it simple!06/20/07 01:32 PMNo commenter image uploaded lyndyn says:Nothing new here, but brilliantly concise and well put together. I'm sending this to some GTD-curious co-workers now. (THANK YOU for not starting with, "Since GTD has already been explained elsewhere, I'm just going to talk about my little spin..."!)My biggest GTD bugaboo is repeating tasks - there's really no good place to put them. I've thought about using the tickler file, but I really try to keep that pared down; I could become numb to tickle messages real quick if I had too many of them, and of course, that's counterproductive. So is finishing the task, checking off (hurrah!) and putting the damn thing right back on the NA list again.So what to do with the tasks that need to be done once or twice a week, every week, without fail? I have a weekly strategy list with these tasks assigned to a particular day, but that's not working so well for me - I'm just relieved if I get to the end of the week and it's all gotten done at some point. I'd love to hear what works for other people, because these cyclic tasks account for about a third of my overall workflow. 06/20/07 02:17 PMNo commenter image uploaded thoughtsforthoughts says:I think this is a great article saying how to handle the to do lists. However, I feel everyone should dedicate quick 5 mins every morning deciding on what should be accomplished on that day. So once you come up with the to dos every morning then it makes the
day easy.-www.thoughtsforthoughts.com06/20/07 02:33 PMImage of Gina Trapani, Lifehacker Editor Gina Trapani, Lifehacker Editor says:@lyndyn: I have a lot of these repeating tasks (like write Geek to Live feature, for instance, which happens every Wednesday, or go to the post office box to check for new mail, twice a week.)What I do is keep them in a calendar which is always on my desktop, showing me today's reminder items (ie, "Feature story due" and "Pick up mail.") That's stacked just below my todo list. That way I can see immediately what I have to do today by virtue of the fact that it is today, but I don't have to go through the motions of adding, checking off, and re-adding. The next day, the tickler items go away and refresh automatically.YMMV, of course.06/20/07 02:55 PMNo commenter image uploaded lyndyn says:@Gina: Hmm... maybe the problem with my strategy list is that it's a week-at-a-glance structure, so there's a slacker in the back of my head thinking, "That says Wednesday, but it's really okay if it's just done by Friday." Which, of course, is exactly what happens. If I were seeing just that day's tasks, that temptation might be lessened. Thanks for the fresh perspective!06/20/07 03:19 PMNo commenter image uploaded carlosdls says:@lyndyn: If you're going the electronic route, Sciral Consistency (http://www.sciral.com) is a great tool for recurring tasks that don't quite fit on a calendar or a to-do list.06/20/07 04:29 PMImage of DudeAsInCool DudeAsInCool says:I use an app called Hot Plan (for Macs) with has a progress bar for my to do lists. I highly recommend it06/21/07 05:31 AM No commenter image uploaded kathaclysm says:I've also seen similar advice for avoiding procrastination (www.onlineorganizing.com/ExpertAdviceToolboxTips.asp?tipsheet=20) and I've modified my own pocketmod (www.pocketmod.com) to include such tips on one page and my google calendar on another page, in addition to my to-do lists. I find having to throw out the pocket-mod once a week/month (to update my calendar) helps me sort though what I did and didn't do.06/21/07 01:27 PM
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