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Creating an Effective To-Do List

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A to-do list is one of the most common time management aids. Also known as a task list, the to-do list is a list of things to be completed. These may be singular chores or steps toward completing a big project. It is an inventory tool that aids memory.

When you complete an item on your list, you generally check it off or cross it off. This can be very gratifying. You are able to see proof of your accomplishment.

There have been technological advances for the traditional to-do list. Software programs, e-mail clients, and most PDAs include task list applications. There are also several web-based task list applications. Many of these are free. Modern task list applications may have built-in task hierarchy. Tasks are composed of subtasks. These subtasks may also contain subtasks. These applications may support multiple filtering and ordering methods and may allow for detailed notations for each task. Task list applications are often classified as personal information manager or project management software.

Task lists are often tiered. The simplest system includes a general to-do list. Recorded on this list are all the tasks the person needs to accomplish. The daily to-do list is created by transferring tasks from the general to-do list each day.

To-do lists are often prioritized. An early advocate of prioritization was Alan Lakein. His method is called the ABC method. This method assigns a value of A, B, or C to each task. A’s on your list are those things that are most important. These are assignments that are due or things that need to be done immediately. ‘A’ priority items also include activities that lead directly to your long-, mid-, or short-term goals. ‘B’ tasks on your list are those things that are important, but less so than an ‘A’ task. ‘B’ items can quickly become ‘A’ items. ‘B’ tasks are important, but not urgent. They can be postponed if necessary. ‘C’ tasks do not require immediate attention. ‘C’ items include things like “shop for a new pair of jeans.” These are often small, easy jobs.

After you’ve labeled all of the tasks on your list, schedule time for all of the ‘A’ items. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ items can be done in unplanned moments during your day when you are between tasks. It is tempting to blow off an ‘A’ task and begin crossing ‘C’ items off your list. While you may get instant gratification, you are completing your tasks. ‘A’ tasks can be difficult to complete and the risk of failure can be high. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself what needs to get done now and proceed from there. You must get yourself back on track. Don’t panic or berate yourself, just calmly return to the A tasks.

Make sure you physically cross your completed tasks off your list. It feels good. When you cross something off, it is physical evidence of progress. At the end of the day, evaluate what you got done. Look for ‘A’ tasks you did not complete. Look for tasks that repeatedly appear as B’s or C’s on your list but never seem to get done. Consider changing these items to ‘A’ status or dropping them altogether.

Another way to apply the ABC method is to label ‘A’ tasks as those that must be completed that day. ‘B’ tasks must be completed within the week. ‘C’ tasks must be completed within the month.

Another common to-do list tool is Pareto analysis. Pareto was an Italian economist who observed that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the country’s wealth. This observation led to the 80/20 rule. Broadly speaking, 80% of tasks can be completed in 20% of your disposable time. The remaining 20% of tasks will take up 80% of your time. This principle is used to sort tasks. Tasks that fall under the first category should be assigned a higher priority. The 80/20 rule can also be applied to productivity. It is assumed that 80% of productivity can be achieved by doing 20% of the necessary tasks. If productivity is the aim of time management, then these tasks should be highly prioritized.

The Eisenhower method evaluates all tasks using the criteria important/unimportant and urgent/not urgent and put in according quadrants. Tasks in unimportant/not urgent are dropped, tasks in important/urgent are done immediately, tasks in unimportant/urgent are delegated to someone else, and tasks in important/not urgent get an end date and are done personally. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a proponent of this method. The entire method is outlined in a quote attributed to him: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

While to-do lists are the most common time-management tool used, they aren’t always a key to productivity. 30% of those that create to-do lists spend more time managing their lists than they do completing what’s on them. This is often caused by procrastination. By prolonging the planning activity, the individual avoids the tasks by creating the illusion that he’s still necessarily preparing for them. As with any activity, there’s a point of diminishing returns. For a to-do list to be efficient and effective, the user must recognize this, conquer their procrastination, and focus on completing the tasks.

Rigid adherence to task lists can create what is known as the "tyranny of the to-do list.” This forces one to waste time on unimportant activities. Again, the point of diminishing returns applies here too, but toward the size of the task. Some level of detail must be taken for granted. Rather than put clean the kitchen, clean the bathroom, and do the dishes on your list, it is more efficient to list housekeeping. The risk of consolidating tasks, however, is that the larger, general task may be overwhelming or poorly defined. This increases the risk of procrastination and can contribute to a mismanaged project or task.

Listing routine tasks wastes time. If you are in the habit of brushing your teeth every day, then there is no reason to put it on your list. If you need to track routine tasks, use a standard list or chart. This will help in avoiding the procedure of manually listing these items over and over.

An effective task system must allow for adaptation. You must weed out inefficiencies and ensure that you are headed in the direction you desire.

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