How to Stay in Control of Your To-Do List

After the American industrialist Charles M. Schwab made his fortune in the steel industry in the early 20th century, he invested his wealth in what was considered the most ambitious private house in New York City. Costing $7 million, and with 75 rooms, Riverside was built over a full city block on the Upper West Side of Central Park. After Schwab died, New York's mayor Fiorello La Guardia was offered the opportunity to make Riverside his permanent residence. He declined, deeming the house too grand for a public official.
How did Schwab become such a wealthy man, living in New York's most enviable mansion? Two reasons. First, he knew a good idea when he saw one. Second, thanks to his ability to spot a good idea, he used a simple but effective system to keep track of what he needed to do each day.
In the early 1900s, Schwab was approached by efficiency expert Ivy Lee. Lee promised he could drastically improve Schwab's efficiency. If Lee's system worked, Schwab was to pay whatever he thought the system was worth.
Schwab agreed. He met with Lee for a few minutes, during which Lee taught him a simple technique. It had three components:
  1. At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you plan to accomplish tomorrow.
  2. Arrange the list in order of importance, with the most important task at the top.
  3. The next day, work down your list. Once you've finished one item, move onto the next.
According to business lore, Schwab was so delighted with the results of this technique that he sent Lee a check for $25,000.
Some people herald this as the birth of the to-do list. The truth is, lists have long been part of human culture. In ancient times, the world was organized around religious beliefs and practices, and lists lie at the heart of many major religions. Think of the Torah's Ten Commandments or Buddha's Four Noble Truths. As Italian novelist Umberto Eco pointed out during an interview with the German newspaper Spiegel:
The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature... Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles.
Lists are essential to human culture because they help us make sense of the world. Lists allow us to organize the world around us, andmore significantlyour own lives.
Enter the to-do list. At its most basic, a to-do list is a list of tasks you plan to complete today.
Keeping a to-do list has multiple benefits. A to-do list helps you to:
  • Stay focused on the task you're working on.
  • Remember what you need to do and when.
  • Be more productive.
  • Stay motivated.
  • Reduce your stress levels.
Let's look at some of these benefits in more depth.
A to-do list helps you stay focused in two ways. First, whenever you've completed a task, you can turn to your to-do list to see what you should do next. This stops you wasting time and mental energy recalling what needs to be done. You've already made the decision on what you'll do next. As productivity expert Brian Tracy once said:
Every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution.
Second, knowing you've got a to-do list helps you remain focused on the task at hand. Your mind wanders less because it knows everything it needs to be aware of is taken care of in your to-do list. This has been proven by psychology experiments.
In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney summarize a study in which participants were asked to read ten pages of a novel.
Some of the group, before they sat down to read the novel, were asked to note down important uncompleted projects in their lives, and to make a plan for how they'd complete those projects. The participants who were asked to do this focused better on the text, found their minds wandered less, and displayed a better understanding of the text they'd read.
Baumeister and Tierney conclude:
The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.
In other words, your to-do list acts as a memory bank. With a to-do list, you can let go of everything that needs doing in the future, because it's taken care of. Then you can give 100% of your attention to what you're working on right now.
Although to do lists help with productivity, they're not a panacea. Researchers over at the productivity app iDonethis looked into the to-do lists of the app's users. They found that 41% of items on to-do lists are never completed. For to-do lists to work for you, you need to know how to create and use them in the right way.
Now you know what a to-do list can do for you, let's look at how you can start using themthe right way. Just follow these five steps:

Step 1: Capture Tasks

Before you can write a to-do list, you need tasks to fill it with.
You could, like Charles Schwab, sit down at your desk at the end of each day and think "what do I need to do tomorrow?" Having this space to reflect can be helpful. But the problem is that you'll often remember what needs to be done at awkward times. Maybe you remember tasks when you wake up in the middle of the night, or when you're deeply involved in a completely unrelated project.
Because of the arbitrary way in which we remember what needs doing, it's a good idea to have a system for capturing every task that you believe might need adding to your to-do list. This could involve carrying a notepad around with you, installing a note-taking app on your phone, or emailing yourself each time you remember a task. The important thing is that your capture system works for you and your lifestyle.
Leo Babauta of Zenhabits explains his preferred method:
Carry a small notebook (or whatever capture tool works for you) and write down any tasks, ideas, projects, or other information that pop into your head. Get it out of your head and onto paper, so you don’t forget it.
On top of helping you remember tasks, writing tasks down stops them nagging at the back of your mind. As we know from Baumeister and Tierney, this frees up your mental energy so you can better focus on the task at hand.
Note that at this stage you're not deciding whether or not you'll follow through on the task. It's best to note down all ideas you have, even for tasks or projects you're sure you have no time for. That way you keep your mind free of mental clutter, and you'll never experience the regret of thinking "what was that great project I imagined earlier? I wish I write it down".

Step 2: Filter Your List

Once you've got a capture system in place, you'll need to filter the tasks you note down. That means deciding which tasks you actually need to do (or want to do), which are crazy ideas you'll never get round to, and which are projects for the future.
Set aside a time each day when you'll take tasks from your capture system, and put them into a to-do list for the next 24 hours.
Make sure each task is specific and actionable. If you won't be able to tell when a task counts as done, it shouldn't be on your to-do list. Research shows that putting vague tasks on your to-do list will make you more likely to procrastinate.
You need to be able to look through your task list and say "yes, that's done". Need help setting tasks that are appropriate? Take a look at our tutorial on SMART goals. Tasks on your to-do list are just small goals, after all.
You may develop your own system for deciding what to keep on your list and what to discard. Alternatively, the Eisenhower Matrix is great for helping you set priorities. Talking of setting priorities...

Step 3: Prioritize

You've got a list of items you plan to complete for the day ahead. But which should you do first?
Your to-do list isn't finished until you prioritize the tasks on the list. You can do this with:
  • The Eisenhower Matrix. This can help you distinguish between urgent tasks and important tasks.
  • The Eat the Frog method. Here, you ask yourself which task you least want to do. You do that first to get it out of the way. It's a bit like being told to eat your veggies first as a kid so you can enjoy the rest of your meal.
  • The Final Version approach. This is the opposite of Eat that Frog in that you organize your list around what you most feel like doing.
You can find out more about how to Eat that Frog or use the Final Version approach in our tutorial on starting with a productive mindset.

Step 4: Set a Time Limit for Each Task

Research shows that if we allow ourselves an unlimited time to complete a task, we'll take longer to do it, and we'll do a worse job. Without deadlines people give in to the temptation to procrastinate.
For example, a study by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch found that students working to self-imposed deadlines performed better on papers than those who gave themselves "as long as it takes" to complete the papers.
When setting yourself a time limit, it can help to use the Pomodoro technique. This technique divides your work time into 25 minute chunks. The more you use the technique, the better you'll get at estimating how long a task should take.
If a task is going to take longer than two hours, then you should break it down into smaller tasks. That way you can better estimate how long each task will take, and set appropriate deadlines.

Step 5: Get to Work

Now your list is ready, you can work on the tasks! Start with the task at the top of your list, and work your way down. When you've completed a task, cross it off and move on to the next one.
As you complete your list, bear in mind the following:
  • Don't beat yourself up if you don't get everything done. Over time, you'll get better at estimating what's possible for you in one day's work. And you can always add tasks that don't get finished to tomorrow's to-do list. The point of your to-do list is to keep you focused on high priority tasks, not to keep you working late into the evening.
  • Distractions will occur. Sometimes, you'll have to deal with them immediately. Often, you'll be able to return to your task having noted down a new task in your capture system. It's worth leaving room in your task list for surprise tasks, so that distractions don't derail your day.
  • Still getting overwhelmed? Try the 3 + 2 rule. Limit your list to five items on your to-do list: three main things you want to get done, and two smaller tasks. That way you'll find it easier to complete your list, and you'll build your self-confidence at getting things done.
  • Give yourself credit for the things you do that aren't on your to-do list. An easy way to do this is to add them to your list after you've done them, then immediately cross them off. Not only does this feel good each time you do it, it also means that at the end of each day you've got a realistic overview of the work you've done.

Over to You

Do you use a to-do list to help you stay productive? If so, what do you do to make your list as effective as possible? What strategies have you learned in this tutorial that you plan to implement? We'd love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments, below.


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