5 ways to make your to-do lists more effective

By Gwen Moran

If your daily task list has become a compilation of things you never get done, use these tips to make it work for you.

To-do lists seem pretty straightforward: A list of all of the tasks you plan to accomplish during any given day or week. And, really, there are few things more satisfying than drawing lines through each entry. Progress!

But, many times, they balloon to unrealistic levels, and we end up feeling overwhelmed and ineffective. That’s usually because we’re using them as a catch-all for every task that’s thrown at us. Instead, our lists should be derived from our larger goals and include tasks that move us toward those big-picture endeavours, says Robert C. Pozen, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and Brookings Institution senior fellow. Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, reduce your hours, says some simple tweaks can make your to-do list a better productivity tool.

1. Write it the night before.

When you take a few minutes to write your to-do list the night before, you can hit the ground running the next morning, Pozen advises. For many people, morning is a high-energy time and having your to-do list already in hand means you don’t waste any super-charged minutes figuring out what to do next.

2. Qualify the contents.

Everything that goes on your daily to-do list should fit two criteria: It should be something important that you need to do—versus that which doesn’t really need to be done or which can be delegated to someone else—and something that needs to be done on that day. Too often, we stuff our lists with items that we don’t need to do or which don’t need to be done today. That crowds out the more important items and might result in working longer hours unnecessarily. If you breeze through your important and urgent tasks for the day, you can move on to the next day’s tasks or other items that are not important or urgent, but which you want to do.

When they get to the end of the day, what they’ve done is responded to other people’s priorities and not their own.

‘When people don’t take control, they go through their days passively. They go to meetings, they answer email, and when they get to the end of the day, what they’ve done is responded to other people’s priorities and not their own,’ he says.

3. Assign time estimates.

Whether it’s five minutes or two hours, include an estimate of how long it will take to complete, recommends Omar Kilani, cofounder of popular to-do list app Remember The Milk. That way, you see how the tasks’ completion times accumulate and ‘you can make realistic decisions about how much you can really fit into your day,’ he says.

4. Use sections.

Pozen divides his list into two columns. On the left-hand side, he make a chronological list of the things that need to be done, such as meetings, conference calls, and appointments. On the right-hand side he lists what he hopes to get done during those events, like coming up with a plan or discussing a particular issue. Underneath his chronological list he include items that have to be done that day, but aren’t assigned to a particular time, in order of priority. That way, when he has a few minutes of down-time, he can check his list and see which tasks he can tackle to make the best use of that time.

5. Re-evaluate items you’ve put off.

Kilani’s app allows users to postpone tasks, but also keeps track of the days postponed. If you’re repeatedly bumping an important task to the next day, you need to look at why. Either it’s not that important or urgent and shouldn’t be on your list or there’s a problem you need to solve to allow you to complete it. Either way, it’s a signal that something is wrong.

This article first appeared at Fast Company.