The magic of to do lists

To do lists are essential to keep track of all your tasks and ensure you are always on top of things. This post provides you with some tips on how to work with to do lists and which media to select.

I can’t live without to do lists! The days I use to do lists are easily the ones where I feel most productive. So, of course, I now use them all the time at work as well as at home. At any given time I will probably have a handful of active to do lists for different purposes. Over the last years I have experimented with a lot of different approaches to keeping to do lists and now I have settled on a solution that I am happy with… For the moment at least.

I would like to share a few of the different types I have tried out and hopefully it may serve as inspiration and make you want to try one of them out. I’ll also discuss some of the benefits of having to do lists and a couple of tips first.

Advantages of to do lists
The three main reasons I keep to do lists are

  • Overview and prioritisation of tasks – writing down all your tasks on the computer or a piece of paper helps you create an overview of what you need to do and in turn makes it easier for you to figure out what is most important for you to complete.
  • The list remembers for you – as soon as it is noted on your list you won’t forget it – unless you lose the list, of course. Hence, you do not need to worry about it anymore and stress about all you need to do as the list can now act as your personal assistant and remind you exactly what your day’s priorities are.
  • Track progress – there’s nothing quite as satisfying as checking off an item on your list. It really gives you a sense of achievement every time you finish a task.

Tips on how to use to do lists
Never leave work without making at least a provisional to do list of your day tomorrow. As noted above, it will help you put work aside in your spare time by not stressing about things at work. Make items on the to do list actionable, meaning there can be no doubt if you have completed the task or not. So, try to avoid writing stuff like “Research papers on beyond budgeting” because you will have a hard time checking that off the list as you may never really get done with that and you will feel less productive.

I stated above that I have multiple to do lists. This is because it is beneficial to keep two types of lists. One for day-to-day items, i.e. something you are able to achieve within a single work day. You need another one to keep track of long-term tasks or projects that takes week or months to complete. This list is the one that have the large milestones for your work with a timespan of up to a year. Then the day-to-day lists’ purpose is to get you a bit closer to these milestones every single day.

For day-to-day lists, try limiting yourself to a maximum of 2-4 larger items. Having more items can result in self disappointment if you too often have unfinished items at the end of the day that you need to transfer to tomorrow’s list.

To do list media types
There are three overall types of media for to do lists; 1) physical, 2) digital, local copy, and 3) digital, cloud copy. Let’s go through each in turn.

This is basically anything not digitalised, so it can be on a board or on a piece of paper. This is the traditional way of doing it. To this day a piece of paper is still more mobile and quicker loadable interface compared to any computer or mobile device. And this remains my favourite way of keeping track of my day-to-day items. Of course, it involves more manual labour to keep updated. My personal preference is using post-it’s as they naturally constrain how much I can have on my day-to-day plate. I have also practiced decentral to do lists, where I write my particular tasks regarding a particular presentation straight on that presentation. This creates great context, but it relies heavily on high quality organisation of your work papers and work station.

Digital, local copy
This includes those lists that are only stored on your device locally. Here I have tried many different things with varying degrees of success. Excel has always been a favourite tool of mine. It presents unlimited ways for you to structure items, automate and keep statistics. I might dwell a bit deeper into this at a later stage as I would also like to get some input from others. Sticky notes in Windows is a desktop application that can store your continuously developing to do list. It is always nearby when you are at your computer. Outlook has a few options to organise what you need to do. Use flags on emails to indicate what day you need to complete an action and you can add additional tasks that don’t have a corresponding email. This way doesn’t allow you to easily prioritise between tasks intraday. It’s also possible to create an all-day event in the calendar where you can organise your do to list within the notes field. All these solutions have the downside that they are only available to you when you have your device handy and turned on, so at times they are a bit inflexible and unhandy.

Digital, cloud copy
Digitalised to do lists that are synchronised to multiple devices like your computer, tablet and mobile is an excellent way to make your list more easily accessible compared to a local copy digital list. Just make sure you have the option of editing your lists when you are offline as well. One example of such a solution is Evernote, which is compatible with all devices I own so I can always input new items no matter where I am as I always carry my phone with me.

I hope this has provided you with some inspiration for working with to do lists.

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