Tips for To-Do Lists

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I’m giving a talk tonight in San Francisco about optimizing your to-do list. There’s still time to sign up here: Biznik meeting.

To do list tattoo I’ll summarize my talk here, in case you can’t make it. First, there are a bunch of reasons to make daily to-do lists if you don’t already. They help you focus in on the small number of things you need to get done and actually can get done. Everyone is busy and gets distracted by myriad things daily. Put 3-5 tasks on your list.

Writing down those tasks clarifies them. When they’re in your head, they’re a little vague. If you have to write them or tell them to someone, you fill in lots of important details that your mental version overlooks. It’s important to write down projects that only you are responsible for. If you’re not accountable to anyone for them, you’ll often relegate them to your free time, and we all know that “free time” doesn’t really exist.

Make sure your list items are really to do’s and not entire projects. You can’t “do” a project. Projects have multiple steps. If “redecorate the guest room” or “design the new brochure” are on your list, you’ll feel lazy and incompetent for not doing them. Instead, put “look at curtains for the guest room,” or “draft the Services section text for the new brochure” on your list.

If there are undone tasks hanging around on your list, make a “not to do” list. This is where you write down those tasks that you feel guilty that you haven’t done, but you honestly know that you’ll never do them. Things that others want you do to, or that you feel you “should” do. Even when these aren’t written down, they nag at you. Put them on this list and then burn the list! Let go of those tasks forever.

When are you going to do the things on your list? Make sure you know where your time is going, if you find yourself running out. Track your time by setting an alarm to go off every hour. Stop and make brief notes about what you did since the last alarm. Don’t judge yourself, but get curious; when do you get most distracted? By what? How long does it take to do routine tasks? We often underestimate that time because we do them automatically and the time seems short. Until you know where your time is going now, you can’t make effective decisions about changing what you do.

Keep losing your list? Have it tattooed on your arm. Courtesy of robstephaustralia.

10 thoughts on “Tips for To-Do Lists

  1. Hi! That’s my to do list tattoo. I’ve gotta say, I’ve had it for almost 4 months and it’s so useful. It’s gotten me in the habit of thinking about what I need to do today every morning while I’m eating breakfast. I’m much more organized and productive and I always know where my classes are on campus. It’s useful as a grocery list too.

  2. Hi! That’s my to do list tattoo. I’ve gotta say, I’ve had it for almost 4 months and it’s so useful. It’s gotten me in the habit of thinking about what I need to do today every morning while I’m eating breakfast. I’m much more organized and productive and I always know where my classes are on campus. It’s useful as a grocery list too.

  3. Stephanie,
    Thanks for your comment! I’m really curious about what kind of pen you use and how you erase your arm. Or do you just do one list a day and shower it off at night?

  4. Stephanie,
    Thanks for your comment! I’m really curious about what kind of pen you use and how you erase your arm. Or do you just do one list a day and shower it off at night?

  5. Hi Claire!
    I’m so glad you liked it. I’ve tried a number of pens and markers but found them to be lacking for two reasons. First, if I’ve put any lotion or sunscreen on my arm, pens and markers don’t work. Second, pens and markers can be a real pain to clean off. Instead, I use one of those “foolproof” eyeliner pens (this one, not because I’m brand specific, I just happened to own one of these anyway and tried it on a whim: http://www.maybelline.com.au/PRODUCTS/Eyes/LINER_AND_BROW/Line_Definer_Liquid_Eyeliner.aspx). I can use the eyeliner pen even if I’ve used sunscreen. Plus, it’s both easy to wash off and meant to stay put even when exposed to a bit of moisture. The entries will fade or blur if my arm gets wet but I find I can do things where my arm gets a little wet, like washing dishes, with no problems. Basically, I fill in my to do list for the day while eating breakfast. Then the eyeliner pen goes in my purse or pocket so I can add things, check things off and, if needed, rewrite anything that’s faded or smudged. At the end of the day, I add anything not completed either as a note in my phone or on a little slip of paper that I set my phone on top of and add those items back to my list the next morning. Now that I’ve been using it for months, I don’t actually have to write things down at night. So my memory is actually a little better.

  6. Hi Claire!
    I’m so glad you liked it. I’ve tried a number of pens and markers but found them to be lacking for two reasons. First, if I’ve put any lotion or sunscreen on my arm, pens and markers don’t work. Second, pens and markers can be a real pain to clean off. Instead, I use one of those “foolproof” eyeliner pens (this one, not because I’m brand specific, I just happened to own one of these anyway and tried it on a whim: http://www.maybelline.com.au/PRODUCTS/Eyes/LINER_AND_BROW/Line_Definer_Liquid_Eyeliner.aspx). I can use the eyeliner pen even if I’ve used sunscreen. Plus, it’s both easy to wash off and meant to stay put even when exposed to a bit of moisture. The entries will fade or blur if my arm gets wet but I find I can do things where my arm gets a little wet, like washing dishes, with no problems. Basically, I fill in my to do list for the day while eating breakfast. Then the eyeliner pen goes in my purse or pocket so I can add things, check things off and, if needed, rewrite anything that’s faded or smudged. At the end of the day, I add anything not completed either as a note in my phone or on a little slip of paper that I set my phone on top of and add those items back to my list the next morning. Now that I’ve been using it for months, I don’t actually have to write things down at night. So my memory is actually a little better.

  7. Stephanie,
    That is so creative. I love it!
    I really like your last point, that you’ve started to remember things without writing them down because your system is so strong that it reminds you. I notice that I remember things that I have written down even if I never refer back to what I’ve written. I have a visual and kinesthetic memory of writing it, so I don’t need to read it again.

  8. Stephanie,
    That is so creative. I love it!
    I really like your last point, that you’ve started to remember things without writing them down because your system is so strong that it reminds you. I notice that I remember things that I have written down even if I never refer back to what I’ve written. I have a visual and kinesthetic memory of writing it, so I don’t need to read it again.

  9. Hi again Claire!
    I thought about getting this tattoo for about 2 years before actually doing it, so, by the time I had the tattoo done, I knew it would be useful. However, I didn’t expect to use as much as I do and I’d never considered that it might improve my memory! It’s a very unexpected bonus! This tattoo was actually my husband’s gift to me for our 4th anniversary because I’d joked about having done so often.

  10. Hi again Claire!
    I thought about getting this tattoo for about 2 years before actually doing it, so, by the time I had the tattoo done, I knew it would be useful. However, I didn’t expect to use as much as I do and I’d never considered that it might improve my memory! It’s a very unexpected bonus! This tattoo was actually my husband’s gift to me for our 4th anniversary because I’d joked about having done so often.

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