How to Master Your To-Do Lists to Boost Productivity

A Today pad is filled out with a to-do list next to a book and a magazine on a marble countertop.

“No matter how senior you get in an organization, no matter how well you’re perceived to be doing, your job is never done.” — Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments 

If you’ve ever thought that just a few more hours in the day would be a huge help in getting to the end of your to-do lists, then you’re not alone. 

Like Johnson says, there will always be more work to do. 

Creating an effective to-do list can help alleviate stress by getting all your tasks out in front of you, where you can organize them to be done in the most effective way. 

Without some direction in your daily to-do lists, though, days can seem to drag on, filled with distractions, and lacking in productivity. We have trouble knowing where to start, over-commit ourselves, or fail to make room for the realistic deadlines.

How often do you end up moving tasks from today’s to-do list onto tomorrow’s list? This not how to-do lists are supposed to work; it is a sign that your daily to-do lists are not working for you.

However, improving your to-do lists can be pretty simple, actually. 

Organize to-do lists by urgency and importance

For starters, divide your list of tasks into levels of urgency. What needs to be completed right away? What can wait a few days? What can you put in the back of your mind for a while? 

Keep in mind that urgency is not the same as importance. Some tasks are urgent because they are critical for helping us achieve our most important goals -- those are good! But some tasks are urgent because someone else is demanding them of us urgently. Those are not as good for your personal productivity, but are often worth doing (if it’s a task for your boss, for example).

It’s important to know the difference, so that you can make sure you’re working on things that are important, not just urgent.

Try to assign a label to every task - urgent, important, not urgent, not important. Then use your best judgment to assign a good mix of tasks to your daily to-do lists. You should prioritize the important, then the urgent, then the not urgent and not important.

Doing this before laying out your to-do list can help you from becoming overwhelmed. It’s easy to throw every little task on a list, and while it can help us feel productive at the end of the day, it can also send us into a tailspin when we don’t finish the list. 

However, if you can prioritize and finish the work that is both urgent and important, you will know that you have used your time wisely.

Organize to-do lists by deadlines

I like to think of my to-do lists in terms of deadlines, so using the Ink+Volt Today Organizer Pad makes a lot of sense for me. For tasks that are built into my day, I can put those on the schedule and start to visualize what my day looks like and how I can fit in the other tasks, which the pad has a designated spot for. 

If a morning coffee meeting with a client is on my to-do list, I know I can grab a latte and answer some emails before they get there. That also lets me know that I’ll make phone calls in the afternoon when I’m back in the office. 

It also helps my work-life balance. I can put a dinner date or happy hour on my schedule and plan accordingly, so I know in advance that I’m not working late that day (and I can communicate that to people who might expect me to do otherwise).

Another helpful feature of the Today Organizer Pad is the block for tomorrow’s tasks. There’s a great impulse to pack as much into today as possible, but as we know, that often means never having a day where we actually finish our entire list. By giving space for some tasks to be planned for tomorrow, you can think ahead and give yourself a little realistic breathing room for today.

How most people’s to-do lists fall short (and how to avoid it!)

One LinkedIn survey estimated that about 41% of to-do tasks are never completed even though more than 60% of professionals use them. So why do so many of us fail our to-do lists? 

Probably because they aren’t doing all that they could be.

“Decades of research on goal pursuit shows that when it comes to execution, there are two major pitfalls that keep us from doing the things we intend to do. The first is that we don’t get specific enough about what exactly needs to happen – the specific actions we need to take to reach our goals,” says Heidi Grant Halverson, the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center and Columbia Business School. “If your goal is to make a good impression on your boss, you need to break that down into actions like arranging a weekly meeting, or turning in reports on time. To-do lists can help with this part of the problem, so long as they are made up of specific actions, rather than vague goals.”

The other pitfall, she says, is that to-do lists don’t really help us seize on opportunities. To combat that, Grant Halverson recommends making “if...then…” plans. 

If it’s Wednesday, I will check in with my manager. Or, if I don’t finish that proposal, I’ll add some time to work on it before lunch tomorrow.

“The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance,” she says.

A to-do list that lacks detail is a set-up for failure. Add phone numbers, addresses, or deadlines to your tasks to help with productivity. Sometimes we dread completing some tasks because it requires a little bit of set up. Taking care of the part in advance will help you work a little more efficiently.

Equally as important as the to-do list is the time it takes to make the to-do list. Be sure to schedule your scheduling. Whether that be one time each week to evaluate your big, long-term tasks or a few minutes each afternoon to get ready for the next day, it’s important that you spend time nurturing and perfecting your to-do list so that you can achieve your maximum potential. 

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