In earlier times, human memory was enough to remember important tasks.
Numerous events clamor for your attention every hour today. There’s so much to do, and so little time. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and drop the ball during an important task.
Enter to-do lists. They help you get stuff done. More importantly, they help you figure out what to do in your chaotic day. They protect your most important asset — time.
Psychologist and author Dr. David Cohen highlighted three key reasons for our love of to-do lists. One, they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life. Two, they give us a structure, a plan we can stick to. And three, they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.
But I ask you: do to-do lists work for you? Be honest.
You’ve made to-do lists, haven’t you? For work, domestic chores, studies, managing finances, and every aspect of life. Writing a list and adhering to it felt remarkably productive. For some time.
Then, you began to procrastinate. Because while you ticked items off the list, you didn’t witness progress. The chaos didn’t subside. If anything, to-do lists added to it and tortured you.
Eventually, you figured if life would remain chaotic, you might as well live without making to-do lists. As a result, you abandoned making and using them.
Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work
It’s because you let a to-do list govern your life.
No. Scratch that. It’s not true.
It’s because you let others govern your life.
Pull out one of your old to-do lists. How many tasks to fulfill others’ demands did you add on the list? If your response is “not many”, how many listed tasks did you complete before others sabotaged your day?
Let’s do something easier.
Reflect on your previous week. What did you do to invest in yourself? Compare that to the generosity with which you distributed your time for others’ demands. How many times did you pull yourself away from what you should’ve done for yourself, to do what others wanted?
Typical To-Do List Templates
Here’s how most people make a daily to-do list.
They sit down to figure out what’s ‘important’ (read, urgent). Next, they note down the tasks in a diary or on their smartphones. Then, they go about those tasks in no specific order. In between, they accommodate tasks which take ‘just five minutes’.
But many ‘just five minutes’ tasks end up taking a half hour. Let’s not ignore other ‘important’ tasks which interrupt their day.
People drain their willpower on emails, instant messages, meetings and other form of quick responses. Since this willpower is like a muscle, they’re exhausted. They have no energy left to perform actions which are important in the true sense.
So they switch to something easier. Like responding to more emails and messages, or entertainment.
That’s that. The day has gone. The tasks lie unfinished. And progress? Well, it was non-existent.
Is it surprising that to-do lists don’t work for you anymore?
In the knowledge era, we have no yardstick to measure productivity. Hence, we turn to the metric which worked best in the industrial age — quantity. Aligning our work with others’ goals makes us feel productive in the moment.
It’s also easier. If responding to an email within an hour makes your day easier, imagine how much this feeling spikes if you respond to an instant message in under a minute. In his seminal book Deep Work, author Cal Newport explains:
If you didn’t have quick tasks at hand to complete, you’d have to plan your day in advance and organize it. You’d have to put quick response tasks aside and focus your attention elsewhere. While this would prove harder, it would also prove satisfying and provide better long-term results.
This hardship is what makes most people break into cold sweat. But this same hardship leads to personal growth. It lets you differentiate yourself in today’s analogue world. It lets you make yourself heard in this noisy world.
This hardship means concentrating on what’s important for you. It means not placing your time at the mercy of others. It means focusing on your personal goals and figuring out which actions will get you there. When you document the actions, you design a to-do list which gives you a direction to move in. It helps you identify which actions you should take and which you can ignore. This is the perfect to-do list, one in sync with your current potential.
Our lists should be derived from our larger goals and include tasks that move us toward those big-picture endeavors — Robert C. Pozen
In the last few months, working on my to-do list format, I’ve designed a 4-step process to optimize it. It now guides me to work on what’s important for my growth. It guides me to invest in myself.
You can use these steps to incorporate the 4 crucial elements you always forget while making your to-do list. I’ve also listed examples of how I designed a to-do list to complete an ambitious project within a tight deadline.
(Spoiler: You don’t start making a list until Step 3.)
Step 1: Identify Wildly Important Goals
While in an elevated state, you want to set goals SO BIG that they scare you. You want to set goals that you cannot currently fathom HOW they’ll be completed. — Benjamin P. Hardy
“The more you try to do, the less you actually achieve,” the authors of the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, wrote. Instead, aim to execute a small number of ‘wildly important goals (WIGs)’.
Identify 2–3 ambitious outcomes to pursue in the next six months and ignore the rest.
Did you ask “why six months?”
Be honest. When was the last time you stuck to a task when no pressurizing deadline loomed overhead?
Without an ambitious timeframe to govern your actions, you’ll drift and jump to the next object which makes you go “Ooh! Shiny!”
Second, according to Tim Ferriss, if you make long-term plans which you can reliably achieve, you have to set them below your current capabilities.
Set tangible ambitious goals and equally tangible and ambitious deadlines to achieve them.
In Practice: I’m ghostwriting a book for a client. Despite my day job, I’ve set a target to complete it within six months. It’s my WIG — ambitious and tangible.
Step 2: Break Them Down
Once you set WIGs, it’s time to figure out how you’ll get there.
Don’t jump into action just yet. If you throw the kitchen sink at your WIGs, you’ll lose steam or burn out. Either way, you lose.
Draw a flowchart of actions which will lead you to your WIG. Break your ambitious goal down into smaller steps. While drawing the flowchart, you’ll find additional tasks which you didn’t consider. Add them.
Next, assign milestones for each step. This will help you track whether you’re heading in the right direction, or you should pivot.
In Practice: I drew a flowchart of actions to complete the manuscript in six months. I divided the activity of writing each chapter into three parts — research, writing a draft, and editing it. The milestone is to make each chapter between 6,000 to 7,000 words long, peppered with interesting stories and research.
Step 3: Assign Your Days
Alright. Set milestones: check. Set tasks: check.
It’s now time to set deadlines for your milestones.
Since your main deadline is an ambitious one, make the deadlines for your milestones ambitious too. Ambitious deadlines will push you out of your comfort zone. They’ll make you work smart rather than simply working hard.
When you change your mindset to adapt to a challenge, you start making real progress.
Assign dates to your tasks to reach your milestone. Put these dates on your calendar. And Voila! You’ve just made the first version of your ideal to-do list.
Newport suggests giving yourself extended durations of time to work on a task. These could be as long as 3–4 dedicated days. If you don’t have this luxury, give yourself at least an hour each day for a week to stay on (and complete) the task.
Jumping between tasks has a scientifically proven disadvantage. Your attention doesn’t immediately follow. According to Sophie Leroy, a residue of your task remains stuck on the original task. This residue is thicker if your work on the first task was low in intensity, and you switched to a new one.
In Practice: For each chapter, I’ve set a deadline of two weeks. I allot a day to outline the chapter, and a day to refine it. I invest four days in collecting stories and data, following which I take a day to review the material. Then I allot four days to write and edit the draft.
Step 4: Apply a Feedback Loop
A feedback loop provides you with real-time information and empowers you to perform better. Action leads to information, which evokes a response that leads to improvement. And the cycle continues.
A feedback loop will make you track the effectiveness of your actions. You can figure out which actions work, which don’t, and why.
If you find you’re not doing enough of an important task, prioritize it. If you find a task which yields low returns, prune it. Identify tasks which offer higher returns for lower efforts and maximize them.
Create a checklist of important tasks and put them on your to-do list. Perform them diligently. Collect rapid feedback on your progress. Use this feedback to refine your to-do list each week.
A feedback loop is a mirror which shows you the true picture. Use it to keep yourself on course to achieve your WIG.
In Practice: I must complete a 7,000-word chapter in three days. Hence, I must write at least 1,500 words a day. Easier said than done. I hit this mark on some days. But four days are not enough to write around 700 publishable sentences. Hence, I write for an hour each morning before breakfast for the rest of the week. I also spend the last five minutes editing what I wrote. When the hour is up, I reward myself with ten minutes of mindless internet browsing.
Bonus Step: Fire all Distractions
“Starve your distractions, feed your focus.” — Unknown
Distractions help us escape from what’s important. They offer instant gratification, for which we compromise actions which make us invest in ourselves. And they fill us with a dangerous emotion — regret.
Fire all your distractions when you work towards your WIG.
Adam Grant makes himself inaccessible to students and peers when he writes a research paper. James Clear puts his phone on silent and keeps it in another room while working. Other deep workers turn off the internet when they focus on important tasks.
Phone calls, texts, and emails can wait. If you don’t have the luxury to put these distractions away for hours, block them for 30 minutes at a time. Use these 30 minutes to focus your attention on tasks for your WIGs. (If you can’t get 30 minutes at work, it’s time you started looking for a better job.)
In Practice: I use the SelfControl app to block out social media sites when I use the internet for research. When I write, I turn off the internet. My phone remains in another room on silent mode
A good to-do list connects various aspects of your life. It helps you identify what you want to do. More importantly, it helps you identify how to do it.
But just like software, a to-do list works on input. What you put in is what you see. If your input consists of tasks which cater to others’ demands, you’ll waste time and feel like pulling your hair out. If your input consists of tasks which help you achieve your wildly important goals, your days will be tougher, but they’ll also be satisfying. Not to mention you’ll do yourself a colossal favor — the favor of investing in yourself.
If you follow the steps above, you’ll slowly reduce the number of futile tasks in your to-do list. Your focus will shift from what others need, to what you must do to nourish yourself.
Can you imagine how that feels? Can you imagine feeling exhausted yet exhilarated by the end of a day? You’ll use your capabilities to their fullest, and gladly spend time with family and friends, fully aware that you gave the day your best. You’ll free yourself from anxiety and be present — mentally and emotionally — in everything you do.
Start working on your to-do list today. Stay consistent with it and watch yourself turn into the person you dreamed of becoming.
Set an example, not for others, but for yourself . You’re capable of doing what you want to, regardless of how difficult it is. All you need is a wildly important goal, and a to-do list which helps you get there.
Now that you know the secret to designing a to-do list which is perfect for you, go on and make on. And do leave a comment to share your thoughts with me.
(This post originally appeared on Medium.)