How to Use to–Do Lists to Have a More Productive Day

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Sep 5, 2017
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How to have a more productive day

Do you ever feel that your tasks have control over you, instead of you controlling your tasks? As we build our careers, it often turns out we know what we have to do, yet we fail to do it.

In result, we often struggle with finishing assignments on time. That’s why we reach for “easy solutions”, such as to–do lists. Unfortunately, to–do lists often cause us stress and guilt, so we claim they don’t work.

But are to-do lists the ones to blame?

Why your to–do list doesn’t work

As we create our to–do lists, we write down everything that comes to our mind and we make it a matter of honor to cross as many tasks as we can. Gotcha? Having too many tasks on your list is the main reason we fail to finish them.

Studies have shown that nearly two in three professionals write to–do lists but only
4 out of 10 items on the list actually get done. That makes people even more stressed out than before creating the list.

Not finishing our tasks is one problem, but often we don’t even know where to start! It’s because we don’t prioritize. We don’t distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t or between what’s urgent and what’s not.

With that being said, I want to show you how to use to–do lists to have a more productive day.

Because when used right, they’re a great solution that helps you create a better plan, prioritize and manage projects.

#1. The fewer the better – just don’t get lazy

Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a month.

We put too many tasks on ourselves during a day, like we’re some kind of a superhero. At the same time, we can’t see how far we could get if we would perform even half of these tasks regularly for a month.

My advice is to start putting fewer tasks on your to–do list. If you manage to perform them, not only will you feel proud of yourself but you will have the motivation to keep performing them the next day. And the day after that.

If you still have time, you can always add something else to your list. There's nothing wrong with that. And if you’ll do more than you’re supposed to at the beginning, that’s what makes you a real superhero.

#2. Prioritize your tasks – you need a strategy

No matter the job you have, you need a strategy to execute it.

People often wonder when to do what. They do random things without a plan. Like cleaning a house when they are supposed to be working or learning, right?

Speaking of cleaning. Imagine you need to clean the house a little before your guests arrive for a cup of coffee. You only have 30 minutes, so where do you start?

First, you need to do things that are urgent and strategically important, like removing all the things that lie in front of the door and checking if you got coffee. When you have time left you can take care of the rest that are a nice addition, like a spotless kitchen and a clean, shiny shower.

It’s the same with starting a business.

Before you go all in with your social media and start publishing “inspirational images” on Instagram (just because it feels nice), take care of your website. Is it user– friendly and responsive? Are the contact details visible enough, so your customers can easily reach out to you? Does your website have educational content and FAQ?

These are the basics you need to put first on your to–do list when you start your online business.

If you have a different kind of job, don’t hesitate to look online – there are tons of websites that describe step by step what you should do at the beginning. Also check out the post Apps for Work That Will Boost Your Productivity

#3. Divide your big projects into small tasks

Just like with your goals, a good way of executing tasks is to categorize them into “short–term” and “long–term” tasks.

For example, every Monday at LiveChat, we have a weekly content meeting with our manager, in which we share what we have done the previous week and what plans we have for the upcoming week.

If we have a bigger project, like publishing an e–book, we divide it into small tasks like: “writing chapters 1–5,” “editing the e–book,” “creating graphics,” “planning the promotion.”

Each of these tasks we can execute in a few days, so we don’t wander in darkness wondering what we should do next, we act, we work. And after 3 months you can see the results.

Pro tip: Remember, a to–do list should be composed of simple tasks you can execute. They’re not long term goals or projects you have in mind.

Quote: Here’s some more advice from guys at Atlassian:

Break your projects and goals down into individual steps. A to–do list should represent a step towards a goal, or an action leading to a project being complete. We recommend indexing your items with action verbs such as “go”, “email”, or “talk to”, to really be productive.

#4. Make use of creativity and be flexible

Having a list of tasks for each week is better for me than having a daily to–do list that I need to share with my manager. It allows me to be flexible and work on the things I want, which is very comfortable in creative work.

Here’s how it works for me:

If I feel creative from the Monday morning (it happens sometimes), I dedicate this day to writing. I also guard my writing flow and move other tasks like meetings for another day.

If I don’t feel any creativity at all, I execute other tasks from the list – for example, I edit guest posts (contribute), do research for a new article or take a meeting. These are things I can do anytime because they don’t require me to be creative. As long as I manage to cross all the tasks from the list on Friday, it’s all good.

Pro tip: Try different to–do lists: weekly and daily. Keep the daily list for yourself, but show the world your weekly accomplishment. I hope it will work for you!

#5. Relax – Focus on one thing at a time

One of the things that can make you fail in finishing your to–do list are distractions. Switching between tasks is one of them.

I too have those days when I can’t focus on one task, so I switch to another for a couple of minutes, because I feel it’s urgent or I make up a different excuse. It’s pointless.

“Since I prioritize my tasks, I should be able to keep my peace of mind and focus on finishing one thing at a time” – I remind myself. It usually works.

The last two times, when my colleague asked me when I will have time to talk about a new landing page project, without any remorse, I told him – tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow. I was already focused on writing, it was hard to switch my mindset to another task and I didn’t want to lose my flow.

Don’t beat yourself up for not doing everything at once. Unless you’re a manager, then you have to do many things at once. But still – don’t be too harsh on yourself.

Being busy with many tasks just creates an illusion of getting much done – but it’s far from the truth.

Let’s sum up benefits of maintaining to–do lists the right way:

Adjust the to–do list to the job you have

You can see a big difference, working according to a “to–do” list then improvising and randomly thinking up of things to do. Having a plan helps you focus and progress with the tasks, step by step.

Adjust your to–do list to the job, then learn how to prioritize tasks and protect the time you dedicate for them. For some people a daily to–do list is the best solution, but for more creative work a weekly to–do list can get the job done even better. After all, you don’t really choose when you get creative, remember that.

So from now on, no more second guessing what to work on. Plan, prioritize and enjoy the flow.

Oh, and once you finish, don’t forget to cross it off the list, because it sure feels good.

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in reading the post How to be Productive (and Less Busy).

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