To-do lists are the subject of many a blog post. In spite of a plethora of tools available for helping us capture and order our tasks, many people are working with broken lists. At a recent meeting of Minimal Quest – a monthly, virtual meet-up for people interested in minimalism – I shared some thoughts on how to establish a better to-do list.
[Note: if you are interested in attending a Minimal Quest meetup, visit www.MinimalQuest.com for information on how to log-in. The group is free and meets for an hour on the third Tuesday evening of the month.]
During our discussion, we talked about problems that many people have with to-do lists. We came up with a few common “to-do list fails:”
1. The lists are spread across multiple locations, including paper scraps, notebooks, notepads, email inboxes, and stacks/objects left out as reminders. Sometimes, we can’t even remember where our list is.
- Downside -> We lose track of what needs to get done.
2. The lists are too long. We often have a giant, run-on list of everything we ever want to do.
- Downside -> Just looking at our list is intimidating.
3. The lists are full of broad and/or vague projects, such as “organize the house,” or “get my finances in order.”
- Downside -> We don’t know where to begin (and therefore, often don’t).
4. The lists are not prioritized. Everything is treated as if it is of equal importance and urgency.
- Downside -> We gravitate toward tasks that are easy and pleasurable.
5. The lists are not actionable, but instead are full of tasks we cannot complete, such as things we don’t know how to do, lack the funding to do, or cannot do until some else makes the first move.
- Downside -> We feel powerless or incompetent.
6. The items on the lists are not assigned to any specific time or date. We fail to schedule when we will work on any given task.
- Downside -> We repeatedly procrastinate.
In addition to these commonly voiced weaknesses, I brought up the fact that many people sabotage their own lists by having one particularly un-productive item on their to-do list. Do you have a guess what this could be?
It is, “What I feel like doing.”
Of course, no one actually writes this down on a list, but the choices we make and the way we spend our time reveals that we often allow our feelings to dictate our behavior. We may have a series of tasks to perform, but instead of getting busy, we rationalize avoiding them by telling ourselves…
- I’m tired
- I didn’t sleep well
- I don’t have the energy to do this
- I don’t feel like going out today
- I’m too distracted to focus on this
- The idea of doing this makes me nervous
- I just don’t feel like doing x, y, or z today
Now that we’ve talked about what doesn’t work, let’s turn to what a good to-do list looks like, and more specifically what a minimalist’s to-do list looks like.
Let’s begin by recalling what minimalism is about. To quote Joshua Becker, founder of Becoming Minimalist,
“At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.Joshua Becker
Therefore, a minimalist’s to-do list facilitates accomplishing what is most important, while avoiding being distracted by anything else. A minimalist’s to-do list is structured in such a manner as to avoid common pitfalls. It is simple and compelling.
1. Maintain your list in one location.
This can be on physical paper (e.g. a notebook), in an app (e.g. To-doist), or via a digital organizing tool (e.g. Outlook). The secret is to capture everything you need to do in this one location. If you get an email reminding you to do something, add that item to your list. If you have a piece of paper you need to follow up on, add that task to your list. One location, one place, easy to find, easy to follow.
2. Be honest about what you can accomplish in any given day.
We may have a copious list of things we need or want to get done, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Keep your list short enough that you have a realistic chance of checking off the boxes. Admittedly, you won’t shoot 100% every day, but you should be able to get there at least some of the time.
If you want, find a “back of the book” or a new list where you can keep track of all the projects you want to remember, but don’t keep them on your list for “today.” A long list of things you didn’t get done can be discouraging and steals your joy from what you have accomplished.
3. Break down projects into specific tasks.
When the task feels too big, we are likely to avoid it. Instead, consider what “next step” you can take to get the ball rolling on the larger project. For instance, decide to “clear out the countertop utensil jar” rather than “organize the kitchen.” Or, “create a folder where I can put paperwork I need to file,” instead of “organize the paperwork in my office.” After you check off one task, you can add an incremental, bite-sized step to another day.
4. Prioritize your tasks.
This can be as easy as putting a “*” or the numbers “1,2,3” next to the most important tasks on your list for the day. Remember, minimalism is about identifying and focusing on what matters most. All tasks may be necessary, but we need to work on those that are most important. This could include tasks that have an impending deadline, or simply those that you feel would bring the greatest satisfaction to complete.
5. Be realistic.
All of us have limits, and our lists should not require us to perform tasks that are beyond our capability. For instance, I may want to get rid of an old mattress in the attic, but the task “take mattress to the dump” is not something I can do. A better task would be “call a junk hauler to discuss mattress removal.” Or, if I’m considering getting back into the workforce, instead of “get a job,” it would be better to begin with, “Draft a resume.”
Similarly, let go of tasks that are not within your purview. You may wish your husband would clear out his stash of old Harvard Business Reviews, but this isn’t your task to complete. Instead, focus on tasks for which you can, and should, be responsible.
6. Schedule your tasks.
Accountability is a powerful motivator, and many people need a deadline to get them moving. Tasks which have no apparent time stamp are easy to avoid. Instead, take a look at your list and put them into your calendar as if they were appointments. For instance, you might say “Make calls between 1 and 2pm,” and then have a list of all the calls you will make during that window. Another example might “go to the DMV and renew license” on Thursday at 4pm, when you’ve heard the lines are shorter (or when you’ve been able to make an appointment). You have a greater chance of doing things that show up on your calendar than those that float untethered on a list.
As for that issue of “feelings”, bear this thought mind: minimalism is about the intentional promotion of what matters most – what matters most TO YOU!
The list is not an albatross that you carry around to make yourself miserable. Instead, a to-do list is a tool you can use to help you move toward your goals. When you find yourself overwhelmed by an emotion that threatens to undermine your productivity, stop and acknowledge it, and carry on.
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How would you describe your to do list?