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8 Ways to Improve Your To-Do List

Is your to-do list just another piece of loose paper stashed somewhere in the pile on our desk? Turn that list into a tool that will power your productivity. Here’s how:

  1. Upgrade your list.
    Stop using torn sheets of scrap paper or tiny sticky notes to detail the tasks you must complete each day. Buy an organizer or a spiral-bound notebook with a hard cover— something durable that will be hard to misplace ad impossible to overlook. When you view your to-do list as intrinsically valuable, you will invest more effort in it.
  2. Pick the right time.
    When do you add items to your to-do list? Whenever you find time? Every 10 minutes throughout the day? An impromptu approach can sabotage your success. Best bet: Set aside 15 minutes at the end of every day, consider your assignments, and plan the next workday.
  3. Prioritize.
    Your to-do list should not be a jumble of ideas competing for our attentions; it should be a road map to guide you through your day. The Key: Focus on the most important tasks first. Don’t waste time and energy on unimportant items that can wait for your attention. Give items a letter grade from A to D. Put the A’s at the top of your list and then the B’s. Delegate the C’s if possible and eliminate the D’s.
  4. Rewrite for action.
    Your to-do list should be more than a series of vague reminders. Every item on it should be succinct, dated and goal-oriented. “Work on paternity cases” is not an effective entry. Better: “Complete legal documents for docket on case number 126000001 by 9 a.m.” Even better: “Complete legal documents for Tuesday docket on case number 126000001 by 9 a.m.” Try to make sure you have all the basic information you need to complete the task.
  5. Stack your list.
    You will guarantee long-term success when you start each day by making meaningful progress on an important long term project. Yet too often the time such projects demand is consumed by productivity devouring minutiae and last minute firefighting. Protect your priorities. Near the top of each day’s to-do list, write down one measurable step that you can take toward a long-term goal. Don’t simply write your goal, like “Tuesday 8/16/16 Paternity Docket”; break larger goals down into daily steps.
    Example: “Review case 126000001 to determine what legal documents must be completed, complete those documents and send to _____________ as needed.”
    TIP: You might want to use the Master Task List form (Excel) provided to track your tasks.
  6. Build in a cushion.
    If you list eight hours’ work of tasks on your daily to-do list, you will never complete everything and you will become frustrated.
    TIP: Estimate how long you will need to complete all you A and B items individually. Don’t forget to consider any meetings or phone calls you have scheduled—to say nothing of the inevitable emergencies and interruptions you are bound to encounter. If your calendar and to-do list together account for more than 60% of your work-day, you are attempting to do too much.
    One Option: Schedule a daylong “appointment” with yourself. Let colleagues know that you need to focus on some complicated tasks, and ask them not to interrupt you except for urgent matters.
  7. Start fresh.
    If at the end of the day you can cross off the very last item, congratulations! You made an effective to-do list; now it is time to repeat the process for the next day. If, however, you were unable to complete everything on your list, don’t beat yourself up. Analyze the items that remain and then refine our approach for the next day. Use a clean piece of paper to start tomorrow’s list. Again, prioritize tasks. Start with the items left over on today’s list. If they are top priority items, determine why you were unable to cross them off today. Break down large tasks, be realistic about your time commitments, and head into tomorrow with a fresh list and renewed energy.
  8. Eliminate carryovers.
    Sometimes you will need to carry over uncompleted tasks, but that shouldn’t be a constant cycle. Suggestion: If you find yourself carrying an item over more twice, re-evaluate it. If it truly is a top priority, why are you avoiding it? If you need resources, make gaining them a to-do list task. If the task is low in priority, eliminate or possibly see if someone else could complete it. If the task is still important but no longer urgent, add a note to a follow-up file and delete the task from your to-do list for now.