12 tips for dealing with your to-do list

long to to list

You’re probably already using to-do lists to keep track of all the tasks you need to complete. But do you always actually have enough time to get everything on your to-do lists done? If not, then they’re really just part of the problem.

If you are searching for a way to work more efficiently and use your time to the maximum, then you’re in the right place. We’ve collected 12 tips that will help you increase your productivity, as well as helping you to create to-do lists that are more focused and useful.

 

1) Use a to-do app or tool.

Though some of us prefer the old-fashioned way of writing our to-dos in a notebook or on sticky notes above our desk, it can be troublesome to carry our lists everywhere we go. Leave a list at home and you may find yourself writing that you need to update your to-do list on a new to-do list!

Most to-do list apps/tools synchronize across all your devices so you can access your list from anywhere you need to, whether you are on a business trip, at your desk or in the middle of a meeting.

There are plenty of apps and tools out there, each with different features and UIs, so try to find the one that best suits your needs. Here’s a list of the seven best to-do list apps to get you started; some of them are free and some are paid, so check out the screenshots and read the descriptions to find the one for you.

Personally, we’re big fans of Todoist because of its clear and simple design.

 

2) Plan your day in advance

Planning what you need to do tomorrow the evening before has a lot of advantages. The most important is that you can get right to fulfilling tasks in the morning, without having to spend additional time on setting priorities, so you get into the swing of ticking things off your list more quickly.

Try to spend 10 minutes every evening planning what to do tomorrow. Use a calendar or day planner to cover all of the tasks you need to get done and try to reserve enough time for each activity. If you see that there’s not enough time to get all your to-dos done, look through the list again and re-prioritize it.

It might also be useful to make notes during the day of things you need to do tomorrow and spend some time in the evening sorting them out, adding to your calendar etc.

 

3) Separate work and personal life

Maintaining a work-life balance is hugely important for your mental and physical health. Carrying personal problems into the office and/or thinking about deadlines, tasks and business issues at home can lower your productivity, derail your ability to focus and increase stress levels.

Modern technology sometimes makes it even harder to separate work and personal life, so finding balance is key – you don’t want to be worrying about taking your cat to the vet or picking up that new blanket while you’re working, just as you don’t want to be thinking about marketing campaigns or Monday’s presentation while you’re having dinner with friends or family.

Over-reliance on to-do lists isn’t necessarily a good thing, but integrating them into your workflow CAN be very useful if you create separate lists for business and personal tasks. When you know that everything you need to take care of is in its proper place on your business/personal to-do list(s), you may find it easier to switch that portion of your mind off.

Most apps allow you to create separate lists, but if you’re prone to sneaking a look at a list when you’re not supposed to, try using separate apps/tools for business and personal tasks. For example, you could use Todoist for work to-dos, Shopping List for…well, shopping lists, and an organizer for personal tasks.

 

4) Make a “to-don’t” list

Ever struggled to find time for all the things that need to be done? Creating to-do lists is good, but to-don’t lists can be just as effective. Think about the main drivers of your business, analyze all the things you are doing and abandon those that are not directly connected to the essence of your business.

Ask yourself some questions about how you spend your days at work: What do you spend most of your time doing? How do certain things change your life? Are they useful in your career? For your personal life? If something is impractical, unrealistic or wastes time, add it to your to-don’t list.

Some examples:

  • Don’t schedule meetings with everyone who asks
  • Don’t manually do things that can be automated
  • Don’t spend a lot of time on small things like choosing the best font type

Creating a to-don’t list is an exercise aimed at eliminating things that consume your time and focus. Obviously, it isn’t something that you’ll need to do regularly – updating your to-don’t list once a year or so should be enough.

If you’re struggling for inspiration, here are some universal things that might be worth hanging on the wall as well!

to-do-list

5) Share your to-do list

There are several reasons why you should share your to-do lists. First of all, sharing your list will make you hold yourself accountable. If you know that someone else is going to see your list, and what you need to accomplish, you will probably put more effort into prioritizing your tasks and setting realistic goals. And it will motivate you to finish everything in the time you promised!

Secondly, sharing a to-do list is necessary if you are working on the same task with your business partner or team. Some apps – we use Asana in our company, but Basecamp is another great option – allow you to divide a single task into subtasks and assign each subtask to the correct person. This tool helps us keep our teammates updated on our progress and leave comments if we need to clarify or discuss something.

 

6) Block time on your calendar

If you use a tool that shares your calendar with colleagues and customers, particularly if it allows them to add tasks or schedule meetings, you should reserve blocks of time to get things done without any distractions.

Need to prepare a plan for a big speech? Block a few hours after lunch or in the morning. Have a meeting with an important client and want to check some information beforehand? Block half an hour before the actual meeting.

Craig Jarrow, author of Time Management Ninja, says that he once blocked almost half of his time in his Outlook calendar and put a task that needed to be done into each block. The result was that he had his most productive week ever. Blocking time for work prevented him from being invited to last minute meetings, allowed him to complete his obligations and deterred people from distracting him.

Another tip from Time Management Ninja is to use only one calendar. You can use different colors for work and personal tasks, but having just one calendar is a must if you don’t want to overlook anything important.

 

7) Use batching

Multi-tasking is a myth. Even if you think you are great at multitasking, research shows that the brain isn’t capable of doing tasks simultaneously, and actually just switches between tasks quickly. For example, let’s say that you listen to music and reply to emails at the same time.

Each time you move from hearing music to reading or typing an answer, there’s a stop/start process in your brain. And this process has a negative effect on us: it costs time (even if it’s only a few microseconds), is less efficient, takes more energy and we risk making more mistakes.

You probably have a lot of distractions throughout the day—as well as working on a main task, we all check emails, answer phone calls, reply to text messages, listen to voicemails etc. Batching, i.e. grouping similar tasks that require similar resources, will help you increase your productivity.

Here are some things you should consider batching:

 

  • Email. Batch reply to emails once or twice per day rather than answering them as soon as they arrive. For example, before lunch and in the evening.
  • Phone Calls. Write down every person you need to call and work through your list once per day. Pick a time of day when people are least busy.
  • Assignments. When you have important tasks that are somehow related to each other, it’s better to do them in one sitting.
  • Planning. Set aside several hours to consider and plan your next big goal or idea.
  • Information Tracking. It’s easy to become obsessed with checking data, whether it’s website stats or your monthly income. Set aside a time to check the numbers once per week or month.

 

8) Set a deadline

Without a deadline…there is no finish line.” Did you ever experience a situation where you had an important task without a deadline and kept putting it off until it became urgent?

Set a due date for every task on your to-do list, especially the important ones. Try to be as specific as possible, because moving a deadline once will make you more likely to put it off again. Keep your deadlines in one place. This is another area in which to-do apps are helpful — most of them can sort your tasks by due date, which helps you to prioritize.

Breaking down a project into smaller parts is also useful because you’ll be able to set a due date for each subpart and have a clearer view of all the steps you need to take to meet your goal. Even if (or, let’s be honest, when!) you fail to meet a deadline, learn from your mistakes to avoid such situations in the future.

 

9) Remove distractions and fight procrastination

Modern technology allows, sometimes even encourages, us to be online all the time and it’s so easy to get distracted. You start work on a task when a Facebook notification pops up that your friend has uploaded some photos and, before you know it, it’s five hours later and you’re watching ANOTHER cat video.

We’re all guilty of procrastinating sometimes, and one way to get rid of distractions is to use special apps. You can decide yourself how strict they should be – some apps simply notify you about the time spent on social media and other “unproductive” websites, while some can block them completely. Here are some apps you can try:

RescueTime is a freemium time-tracker for Windows that can track how much time you spend on each activity and show you statistics. You can set personal goals and determine what kind of activity is “productive”. For example, if you work in a design field, visiting Behance and working in photo editing apps is not a distraction but part of your working process.

Go F*cking Work is a free (and sweary!) Chrome extension that prevents you from visiting websites that distract you. If you try to open a website you listed in the settings, you’ll be automatically taken to the app page and shown a reminder that you should work. Not suitable for kids!

Freedom is an app for iPhone, iPad, Mac and Windows that allows you to block specific websites or disable your internet connection (temporarily!) altogether. Their pricing starts from $2.42 per month, but they offer a 7-day free trial.

Productivity Owl is another free Chrome extension that allows you to visit websites you’ve marked as distracting, but only for a certain amount of time, so you’ll be able to quickly find any information you need and get back to work. You can also set “free time”, during which time all restrictions are disabled.

If you don’t want to use apps, simply putting your phone on do not disturb or airplane mode can also be very helpful because it forces you to consider your actions rather than picking it up and surfing on autopilot.

owl

 

10) Try the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the early ‘90s. He came up with the name “Pomodoro” because he was using the tomato-shaped timer to track his work as a university student. The method is simple: when you have a large task or series of tasks, you break the work into short, timed intervals spaced out by short breaks. Those intervals are called “Pomodoros” and usually last 25 minutes.

Set up a timer or use special apps and immerse yourself in the task at hand for 25 minutes. Try to avoid distractions like phone calls or email notifications and, if you suddenly remember that you have something else to do, just write it down on a piece of paper and keep working. After the alarm rings, take a short break — stretch, grab some coffee, meditate or do something else relaxing that’s completely unrelated to your work. Then it’s time for a new Pomodoro! Take a longer – about 20 or 30 minutes – break after every 4 Pomodoros.

We recommend the Pomotodo app for this technique, but you can use any other app or tool you can find. And there are plenty of them out there, from simple timers in your browser or on your iPhone to specialist tools.

This technique has a lot of benefits. First of all, it shows you how much effort a certain activity requires, so you’ll be able to predict how many Pomodoros a similar task will take. Secondly, it helps to cut down on interruptions – there are very few emails or tweets that can’t wait for 25 minutes while you finish up some work.

It also helps you to make sure your work is as good as it can be – the length of a Pomodoro generally means that you’ll have some extra time to check for typos or add a bit of extra polish. Plus, dividing your time into Pomodoros will start to become second nature and you’ll get much better at sticking to a timetable and setting deadlines!

 

11) Reward yourself for doing tasks

Crossing things off your to-do list or taking a break can be rewarding in itself, but sometimes you need a bit of extra motivation to get focused on your work, especially when you have to do something you don’t like. Time to come up with a rewards system!

For example, you could allow yourself to check your favourite website, drink/eat something tasty or watch an interesting video once you finish a difficult task. You might even think about paying yourself every time you get an especially challenging project done! This could take the form of a savings account, iTunes/Steam account or a gift card to your favorite shop. Use the unpleasantness and difficulty of the task to decide how much you pay.

When you finish a REALLY big project, reward yourself accordingly — go on a road trip, take your family or friends to a fancy restaurant, or do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time like taking a cooking class, going wine tasting or visiting a spa. You’ll soon learn to love horrible tasks as you come to associate them with rewards.

 

12) Adjust your thermostat

Research shows that the temperature in the office influences our productivity. Employees that were working in a room with low temperature made 44% more mistakes, and their productivity fell by almost half.

Moreover, cold employees were distracted and their performance kept decreasing by 10% every hour. When we are exposed to cold temperatures, we have to spend energy to keep ourselves warm so there is less left for concentration, insight and inspiration.

So, make sure to keep your office or room warm, around a cozy 77°F (25°C).

 

How do you deal with your to-do list? Do you have any tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

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