Utility software

How to do a to-do list

What everyone should do

No matter what tool you rely on to keep track of your tasks, following a few general principles will maximize the usefulness of your to-do list.

Be Discrete Make sure the tasks you’ve added to your list represent single, discrete activities that you can accomplish in 5 to 20 minutes each. If they’re going to take longer than that, try breaking them down into smaller chunks. In other words, “Plan vacation” isn’t a good task (that’s a project). Break it down into items such as “Check Web rates for flights to Seattle,” “Ask the boss for a week off in December,” and so on.

Keep It Concrete Avoid mushy verbs and try to phrase your to-dos in concrete, physical terms: “Brainstorm report” isn’t nearly as effective as “Draft five ideas for report theme” or “Write 500-word introduction to report.” If you have to come up with ideas about a topic, you may find that your best brainstorming happens in the course of other, more concrete actions, such as writing or discussing. So try to anchor your to-do items with those activities, rather than something like “Think about X.”

Give It Context It makes sense to divide your to-do list according to where you need to be and which tools you need to complete a task. Keep-ing an “At the office” list separate from your “Errands around town” list only makes sense. For instance, if you’re stuck for an hour someplace where you can only make calls from your phone, then you can go ahead and skip items that require a laptop (computer), a lawnmower (chores), or your boss (boss-agenda).

Make a Commitment Apart from never completing any of the items on your to-do list, the biggest mistake you can make is to use the list as an undifferentiated dumping ground for everything you might do someday. Filling your list with fantastic plans or spur-of-the-moment thoughts leads to procrastination, indecision, and inaction. Think of your to-do list as hallowed ground, where you’ll put only those tasks you’re really committed to completing.

[ Merlin Mann is a writer and the proprietor of the 43Folders blog. ]

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