Make the Most of Your To-Do List

I’m still on board with the whole To-Do list thing. But it seems to be falling out of favor with some people. “It’s too rigid and inflexible,” they say. “It’s better when used as a list of options rather than requirements,” they suggest.

I understand and accept these criticisms, and I take them into account when using my own To-Do list. That’s why I’ve dressed mine up with some extra features to make it more flexible and useful in fast-changing situations.

Here’s how I use my To-Do list:

Add A Priority

In the old days, my To-Do list was a single itemization of every task, project, and goal on my plate. I added new items at the bottom and tried to tackle them starting at the top.

But as time went by, I realized I wasn’t strictly following the list in order. I would look it over and pick the most important item to work on, or sometimes I’d pick the item that most appealed to me, or that suited my energies and interests at the moment.

For example, early in the morning I might choose to swap engines in my sports car or build a rear deck on the house – tasks requiring physical exertion and mental toughness. Later in the day, I might choose to review my recent spending and pay a few bills – tasks I could do sitting down, requiring little more than patience and attention to detail.

I was not the first to recognize it makes sense to match the demands of an item on my To-Do list with my abilities at the moment.

Eventually, I began to incorporate such criteria explicitly into my To-Do list system: carefully noting each item’s urgency, importance, and required energy or skill-set. This makes choosing between items easier, because when I’m choosing what to do next, there are relatively few tasks, projects, and goals that measure up to what I’m looking for on all these criteria.

Include Required Resources

Another added wrinkle in my To-Do list system is consideration of the resources I need to complete a given task, project, or goal.

For example, I can’t start building a rear deck without having the proper materials and tools on hand. I can’t start developing a marketing plan without information on where best to reach the demographics I’m seeking.

For each item on my To-Do list, I began including a sub-list of the information, tools, commitments, money, and other resources I’ll need to get started and make significant progress. Any items lacking required resources are not currently candidates for my time and effort. In addition, these lists of required resources conveniently create individual mini-To-Do lists that guide me in preparing to tackle the associated item.

Set Start and Stop Times

A final element of my modern To-Do list system involves scheduling. Rather than allowing each item on the list to take an indefinite amount of time, I try to specify how much time I’ll give it. This is very helpful because when I’m scheduled to complete an item in one hour, it’s less likely to expand and take two.

Estimating how long each task, project, and goal may take also facilitates daily planning, as follows: It’s fairly easy to know what time I’ll start a particular To-Do item (such as: first thing in the morning, right after lunch, when I get back from a specific meeting, and so forth), and with a known starting time, I can readily estimate when I’m likely to finish.

The result of this “dressed up” To-Do list system is that my days are easier to organize, my tasks, projects, and goals are easier to sort through and select, and I’m less prone to procrastinate as I metaphorically juggle various items while making my Basic Choice of what to do next.

But there’s one additional trick I also do with my To-Do list:

I Rate My Performance

Strictly speaking, you don’t need a To-Do list to rate your performance on a particular task, project, or goal. But having the list gives you a place to record the rating. It also makes it unlikely you’ll forget to do so, because a task on the list is not “complete,” and can’t be “crossed out” until you cap it off with a personal performance rating.

As I rate my performance, I try to think in terms of how well:

  • I prepared for the item,
  • I performed on the item, and
  • The outcome satisfied me (based on my criteria for the item).

This process may sound complicated, but it actually simplifies my work and my life because it offloads much of what I used to think about and tried to remember into an unwritten system – a permanent record I can review – that helps me maximize my level of productivity and success.

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