The father of the modern day to do list is none other than one of the founding fathers of the U.S., Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an incredible mind, and had a truly profound impact in so many different areas its hard to believe. He helped draft the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was a scientist, an inventor, and a writer who excelled at everything he did. He is a beacon of productivity. One of the secrets to his insane efficiency was the to-do list.
Here’s what it looked like:
To-do lists seem pretty straight forward. They’re generally revolved around writing down the things you need to get done in a given day (or period). What I’ve found is that in order to make a truly effective to-do list, you have to think about why you’re doing it.
What are you expecting the list to do for you?
Without keeping in mind the reasons you want to take the action, the action itself is inevitably limited in its value.
The most obvious answer is that a list of all of our tasks helps keep us organized. It provides us with clarity about the actions we need to take so that we don’t have to keep them arranged in our minds. Our minds are generally unreliable when it comes to staying thoroughly organized.
But a to-do list can be much more powerful and provide way greater benefits than mere organizational clarity.
If you take the time to construct it with care, a to-do list can provide you with:
So how do I actually begin to form a to-do list that works for me? What tasks should I include in it? What’s unnecessary to keep track of? Where do I keep all this information?
Making a to-do list work to your benefit requires breaking it down into different sections for different types of activities. What I’ve found really useful is breaking the list into sections based on personal stuff, work stuff, and “ideal me” stuff.
Personal Stuff – The personal section is about writing down the very ordinary tasks you seem to never get to. It should include activities like cleaning the gutters, changing light bulbs around the house, filing taxes, dealing with auto maintenance, calling or seeing that family member you’ve been thinking about, doing something nice for a loved one, or going through your wardrobe to donate old clothes you never wear.
The goal here is to have a daily reminder of the very basic tasks that wouldn’t take long if you just made the effort to get them done, but for some reason keep delaying the completion of.
Leave these tasks on your to-do list and re-write them every single day until you’ve actually completed each one. When its staring at you in the face on a daily basis, you’ll start to question why its still there, which is both motivating and provides you with a necessary sense of “come on you fool, what are you waiting for.”
Work Stuff – This section is pretty straight forward, but there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. Firstly, you should not include ordinary and routine tasks in your work section. Things that you know you’re going to get done regardless of whether they’re on your to-do list or not have no place in being on what should be sacred for you. They don’t actually provide you with the sense of accomplishment you want to feel when you cross them off.
Secondly, your work section should be split into an order of priority through which you successively move through each task.
When it comes to prioritizing your work tasks, you should keep in mind both the importance of the task, and the time at which you’re most likely to get it done as efficiently as possible.
If you know you don’t want to start the day with a certain activity or that you’re more likely to get it done at a different point during the day, schedule it accordingly. The goal is to create a chain of tasks you can move through based on importance of them getting done with the least resistance from your own laziness or lack of desire.
“Ideal Me” Stuff – This is the most important section of your list. Both personal and work matters, although helpful to have written and broken down are ultimately going to get done at some point or another. “Ideal me” stuff is about writing the actions that will help you step closer to the person you ideally envision yourself being.
It should include things like reading, meditating, and exercising. Writing these actions and behaviors down every day will be first hand evidence of your own wanting to change in certain ways. Seeing those things every day will help engrain in your mind the importance of doing them.
In this section, prioritizing isn’t nearly as important as designating specific time frames for them. If you know you’re not going to wake up and work out in the morning, don’t schedule it at that time. If you know you’ll never read before going to bed, try scheduling it for when you sit at your desk before you start work.
I lightly touched on it above with regards to timing, but it is extremely important to be specific about both the actions you need to take to get a given task done, and the time frame in which you want to do it.
The real benefit of being specific about what you need to do rather than just stating overall tasks is that there’s a lot less thinking involved. When you simply write “file taxes” or “draft contract” there is a tendency to become overwhelmed by all that needs to go into getting it done. On the other hand, when you break the task down into “call accountant, ask what documents need to be sent, and organize information for accountant,” the task itself seems like a lot less of an endeavor.
“I needed a vacation. I needed to get the wax out of my ears. My car needed an oil change. I’d failed to file my damned income tax. One of the stems had broken off of my reading glasses. There were ants in my apartment. I needed to get my teeth cleaned. My shoes were run down at the heels. I had insomnia. My auto insurance had expired. I cut myself every time i shaved. I hadn’t laughed in 6 years. I tended to worry when there was nothing to worry about. And when there was something to worry about, I got drunk.”
― Charles Bukowski,
Although the quote above is comical, it really gives us a good idea of the benefits we can reap if we stayed on top of and wrote down the actions we needed to take. It also provides a great illustration of just how easy it is to put things off for another day and the harmful side effects that come along with regularly procrastinating on what you know you need to get done.
A to-do list shouldn’t be some mechanical action you take that doesn’t serve you any real benefit because you never use it. It’s meant to provide you with utility. It’s supposed to foster productivity, efficiency, clarity, along with mental and emotional well being. It helps you balance different areas of your life, avoid procrastinating, and remind you of what’s important.
Keep in mind that there’s not necessarily a right answer to making this work. Only the principles of consistency and doing it with intention. But I promise that if you consistently draft a to-do list every day with the basic guidelines I recommended, you will feel the impact in the quality of your life.
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