When you get everything out of your head and on paper (or screen), you’ll probably end up with an unorganized pile of scribbles. That’s ok, because the main point of the brain dump is to write things down without thinking about them (too much). The next step is where you start thinking and organizing and categorizing and prioritizing. That’s what gets you a good to-do list – and a good to-do list is invaluable for actually achieving your goals!
But first, a note on to-do lists in general. Some people advise not having them, for various reasons. If your to-do lists get too long and unwieldy, the answer is to simplify and focus only on the most important tasks. If you find you’re having problems with time management, the answer might be to schedule all your tasks in your calendar instead of relying on a to-do list. But if you’re currently feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, leave the experiments in higher productivity for later and try to use a simple to-do list first.
So how do you write a good to-do list?
1. Look at your brain dump or master list of tasks. In general, the tasks can be urgent or non-urgent and important or unimportant. Find the urgent and important things first and add them to your to-do list. Add the important but not urgent tasks next. For the unimportant stuff that ended up on your master list, think about why you want to do it and if it’s really necessary in the first place! Try to let it go or get someone else to do it.
2. Beware: don’t get stuck putting out fires all the time! That is, don’t always deal with the urgent stuff and forget about everything else – until it becomes urgent. That’s a sure way to stagnate and not reach your goals. If you’re dealing with the urgent stuff all the time, you’ll never find time for doing the long-term, strategic things like going back to school to get a better job or taking on new projects and responsibilities. Make sure to get to the important non-urgent tasks too.
3. Group similar tasks together – or those which make sense together, like making a private call while you’re running errands during lunch. You probably don’t want to jump from running errands to working to doing personal tasks to running errands again and so on. Try to make your to-do list a logical plan for the day.
4. Take into account the available time. Otherwise, you’ll be facing a never-ending to-do list! Try not to put more than one task which requires several hours of effort on your to-do list for the day. Don’t plan on magically working faster than usual. (If that happens, hey, great! But don’t count on it when planning your day.)
5. At the end of the day or the next morning, review your last to-do list and your master list of tasks and prepare the next day’s to-do list. Think about what worked well the day before or what could be improved and incorporate that in your next to-do list.
Drop things that aren’t important, forget about ‘keeping up’, and focus on things that bring you real benefits, like taking care of yourself. And feeling accomplished after crossing of the last task on your to-do list for the day is certainly one way of caring for yourself.