4 Ways to Make a Better To-Do List

to doWhat's currently on your to-do list?

A 2012 global survey by professional networking site LinkedIn found that 63% of professionals frequently create them.

But are we as productive as we are organized? Not exactly: The same survey found that only 11% of professionals accomplish everything they plan to do in a given workday.

Clearly, most of us are on board with keeping to-do lists—but finishing them is a different story. So we spoke with productivity experts to figure out not only how best to plow through our lists but also whether there's a best type of list out there to begin with. And then, just to make you feel a little less alone, we snagged the looming lists of four real, aspiring list-finishers.

If "figure out how to be more productive" is on your list, you're about to check it off.

How to Actually Do Your To-Dos

Documenting the people and things that need our attention isn't so much of a challenge in itself—the tricky part is checking off tasks without that "I haven't accomplished anything today!" feeling. To keep moving forward, keep these four expert tips in mind:

1. Maintain One Master List

Ken Zeigler, a productivity and time management expert who has conducted over 16 years of research in the field, suggests a "Master List": a portable pad of paper (he finds the old-school medium most effective for retention) where you keep all to-do items (whether financial, personal or professional) for an entire week. When you have a thought, write it down immediately, then delete it from your mind. “Allow your mind to be a strategic thinker," he says, "not a memory chip.”

2. Batch Your Tasks

The next step in Zeigler's process is to review your Master List daily and transfer action items onto a Daily List, which should be in electronic form to make it easily portable and accessible from multiple devices. This list should be "batched," or separated into groups of similar tasks (like the three separate emails you must answer in the next hour or the five errands you need to run in town). Zeigler explains that batching tasks improves productivity. “By working on all of the similar tasks, it will prevent your jumping from task to task and help you focus on one type at a time,” he says.

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3. Work Toward Larger Goals

Peter Bregman, author of "18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get The Right Things Done," has created his own method for a list that tackles not just the minutiae of daily life but your larger goals. It's called the "18 Minutes To-Do List." To get started, you identify no more than five goals for the year—both personal and professional—and generate your daily to-dos keeping those annual goals in mind. Of course, there is space for the unavoidable minutiae, which is called “the other 5%,” because according to Bregman, you shouldn't be spending more than 5% of your time on these tasks.

4. Set an Expiration Date for Each To-Do

When setting yourself up for success, "next week" isn't an effective time limit. “There's a tremendous amount of research that points to the fact that if you decide when and where you're going to do something, you'll do it,” says Bregman. If items stay on your list for more than three days, Bregman gives you three options: Do it right away, put it on your calendar for a specific time in the future (place the hardest and most important items at the beginning of the day), or delete it.

  • BlogaHollic

    try asana

  • CrankyFranky

    requires no power – and works for me – the back of a used envelope – I usually get a few in the mail each day – each evening a cross off the day’s achievements, transfer the undone ones to a new envelope, and add any new tasks I want to do.

    I separate the ‘page’ into 4 sub-lists marked H for home, W for work, X for phonecalls and > for goto

    on the left beside each item I mark – a 1 for must do this week, 2 for must do soon, or 3 for would like to do soon (4 for would like to do sometime – I used to use, but no longer bother)

    when I walk out, I fold it, put in my pocket, and where-ever I find myself, can just pull it out and see suitable tasks for that moment – whether shopping or phonecalls to make

    people think it’s busywork – but I find it liberating – I often scan the list, see there’s nothing really urgent, and I can relax and enjoy – no niggling worries that there’s something I’ve forgotten that I ‘should’ be doing – really frees my mind for other thoughts – as you say, not just acting as a memory chip …

  • Tania

    I wish my to do lists were so simple although I suspect the examples were condensed for the sake of the article. I use the Things App and the Getting Things Done methodology to keep track of tasks to do and shopping lists. I can organize by area and then sub-categorize by “tags” and I can even group tasks into a project. I love it. I also use the apps to gather lists that aren’t to do items but writing project ideas, books to read, movies to watch, etc that I can refer to later. Things combined with Evernote keeps me sane as it gets all that stuff out of my head so I can focus on what I’m doing now.

  • http://www.GiveMe10.info/ Laura at Give Me 10

    Peter Bregman’s suggestion to minimize the time for minutiae works great — I’ve been limiting my time to make doctor appointments, schedule pickups, etc. to 10 minutes every hour (work for 50 minutes, do other things on the to-do list for 10). It’s a great way to not let the day get eaten up with the boring stuff. To tell the truth, it usually takes a little more than 10 minutes (transfers and holds are a killer!), but it still keeps it in check.