We all have some sort of a to-do list. We write it down, sometimes with checkboxes, sometimes in an app — never to be looked at again when things start to pile on.
I’ve done it many times and there’s a high chance that we’re on the same boat.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with different methods of dealing with the to-do list. Here are 7 ways to deal with your to-do list, in the most productive way possible.
1. The 5/25 rule
There’s a tale floating around about a conversation between the once richest man in the world and his pilot. While Bill Gates may have pushed him from the top ranking, Warren Buffett still has something going for him that he’s doing correctly.
The tale goes something along the lines of this: Warren Buffett had a talk with his pilot and asked him what his goals and aspirations in life are. He told the man to write down his top 25 goals. Mr. Buffett then told his pilot to circle his top five and proceeded to ask him how he’d go about achieving the other 20.
“I’ll work on them when I have the time,” came the reply, or something along those lines.
The billionaire told the man off and instructed him to discard the other 20 and don’t even look at them until the top 5 are completed. This is because they’re distractionary and detract you away from actual goal completion.
The same can be said for your to-do list.
Be ruthless in order to move forward.
2. What’s your micro ambition?
Sometimes our to-do list actually has tasks that are impossibly big. We do it all the time, with over projections and underestimations. We think too optimistically about how much we can do and achieve within a short amount of time.
When it comes to micro ambitions, you are breaking your to-do list up to the most likely achievable thing. This way it gives you a sense of progress and lets you see how big the project, task or item really is.
Got a book to write? Don’t just have ‘write a book’ on your to-do list. Be specific and be achievable — like, write 200 words daily, or spend 15 minutes minimum on a task.
It will help you edge a little bit closer towards the big final result whilst bringing the number of items in your to-do down to a mentally digestible amount.
3. Repetition is key
When it comes to to-do list, the list itself probably has types that repeat themselves over and over again, with the actual task itself being slight variations of it. You can save time and mental processing space if you start batching your similar tasks together and perform them at approximately the same time each day.
When you start repeating the same types of tasks at specific times, you subconsciously prepare for it and are more likely to work faster.
According to a chapter by Geoffrey M. Hodgson, in the book Organizational Routines: Advancing Empirical Research, the Professor in Management at Loughborough University discusses how routines provide a way for individuals to reduce the amount of internalized interpersonal negotiations and choices.
In short, making choices tires us out. Creating routines is the cure to this ailment, making your to-do list much more efficient in the long run.
4. The double-page spread
Sometimes we plan ourselves too far into the future. The double-page spread technique limits you to a maximum of two pages only — for the entire week.
Rather than doing a day-by-day to-do list, you work on your list as a whole. This allows you to be flexible in your scheduling but rigid enough to signify what should and needs to be done.
It also lets you see the bigger picture of what your to-do adds up to. It also lets you review in productively in retrospect and lets you know which task is too big to be completed, allowing you to make better estimates for its completion in the next round.
5. Agile applied
In business, the agile methodology is the act of eliminating anything that is not a vital piece of the project. It means stripping away features and functionalities that are nice to have but cannot be delivered in time within the delivery cycle.
Anything that didn’t make it into the development phase gets put into the backlog, never to be looked at until everything is completed.
In a way, it’s similar to the 5/25 rule by Warren Buffett — except with agile you continue to eliminate your to-do list until it is able to be completed within the given time. The difference between the 5/25 rule is that the agile method focuses on the length of time while Buffett’s method focuses on the number of tasks.
6. Burndown challenge
Incorporating a burndown chart as part of a to-do list turns your usual list of things to do into something that is time tracked against your estimates.
It’s used by many project managers to determine if a project is going to be finished on time or not.
If you’re having issues with items that linger around for much too long and you can never seem to get rid of them, a burndown chart may help you see certain patterns.
Perhaps you’re just not getting to the item in time, or perhaps there is always something else that’s stopping you from getting to your scheduled task. When you start using burndown charts, it also makes you aware of how you’re using your time and can even make you competitive with yourself, pushing you forward to complete everything on your to-do list in the most time-efficient way.
7. Sharpen your tools
Sometimes, trudging on through your to-do list can reduce your output and productivity velocity over time. This is especially important if your tasks revolve around certain knowledge skills and your ability to perform them.
When you start scheduling in time to sharpen your tools — that is, keeping up to date, learning new skills and polishing old ones — you are hitting your to-do items with a sharp mind rather than a blunt one.
If you think of your to-do list as a tree that needs to be chopped down, the speed will be determined by your skill to do something effectively and efficiently.
A to-do list, at its simplest, is to help you organize your thoughts and reduce the mental load of remembering everything.
However, we often have a lot going on and sometimes we overload ourselves with too many things to do. When this happens, we need to take a step back and reassess ourselves, our goals and the purpose of having certain items on your list.
A to-do list is a priority list and sometimes, elimination is necessary because it is physically impossible to complete everything you want to do. So prioritize your items, track them and turn them into smaller tasks so you can actually start to get traction on the ones that aren’t making progress.