The todo list is such a key component of so many modern productivity and management systems that it's easy to overlook. It's the foundation upon which everything rests and yet is mostly invisible. This guide is about taking a second look at the to do list and viewing it through the same lens we would use on any other productivity system.
We'll go over the best practices of using todo lists and hopefully provide you not only with a greater appreciation of the humble to do list but also provide you with a bit of insight on how to get the most out of this most essential element.
For as simple as a to-do list can appear at first glance, a bit of thinking can go a long way in terms of making it useful. And sometimes, it's really all you need to handle your work, so why complicate things?
We've all used to do lists before. But have you taken the time to really consider what you're doing? It seems pretty straightforward. You write things down in a list, you check the list to see what's next, do the thing, then mark is as complete and move on to the next thing. And that's certainly how a lot of people think about and use to-do lists, unaware that there's a bit of nuance to getting the most out of the method.
If you think about it for a moment, there are actually a couple of steps involved if you want to avoid some of the common issues people using todo lists sometimes run into. Things like:
To help you avoid these and other problems when using todo lists, we've come up with a simple acronym to remind you of the crucial steps. And who doesn't love a good acronym. CORE, stands for 'capture', 'optimize', 'refine', and 'evaluate'. Let's go through each of the steps and how they work to make to-do lists a powerful method in their own right.
This is an obvious but crucial step. Things need to find their way onto your todo list or they'll have zero chance of getting done. That sounds simple enough, but if you don't take the time to think about the practical aspects of it for a second - you might end up with a less than optimum solution.
Make it easy
When it comes to capturing to-do's you want to make it as easy as possible for you to add new items to your list. The more friction there is to adding something, the more likely you are to try and remember it rather than add it to your todo list. That's a recipe for forgetting things.
It should also be super easy to add new items. Workflowy makes that easy by being available on the web, via desktop apps, and via mobile apps. no matter where you are or what you're doing, you should always have quick access to your Workflowy account.
There should be a single source of truth that holds all your todos. We recommend you have just a single todo list rather than a bunch of different ones scattered everywhere.
By keeping everything in a single list, you avoid accidentally misplacing items or having to think about where something goes before you capture it. The key here is to make the process of capturing things as simple and effortless as possible - this is how you turn it into a habit.
Not everything that finds its way onto your todo list needs to be done with the same urgency. We want to optimize our list so that the most important and impactful items come first and then everything else. This step is about giving you the confidence to trust the next item on your todo list and not spend time second guessing yourself.
Sort and prioritize
You want to have some methodology for sorting items in your list, otherwise it'll be tempting to scan your list, pick whatever feels easiest at the moment and do that instead of what actually matters. In other words, if you don't have a system in place that you trust, then any item on your list is as good as any other item, right? So let's not do that.
There are several prioritization systems available, but we recommend you stick to something simple like 'Eating the frog' or the 'Eisenhower method'.
Eating the frog
This is a very simple method where you find the most difficult and important task for the day and put that at the top of your todo list. The idea is that if you can get that out of the way early, it will free up the rest of your day for less important tasks and allow you to feel a sense of accomplishment.
The Eisenhower method sorts tasks into four categories based on their urgency and importance. It requires a little more effort than simply 'Eating the frog' but can be useful if you don't have a single big task to handle each day but rather lots of smaller activities.
All tasks fall into one of four categories based on whether they are urgent and important. Urgent and important tasks are placed first on your list, next come the important but not urgent, then the urgent but not important, and lastly those that are neither urgent nor important.
You can simply tag items using four different tags to indicate what type of task they are.
Another option is to use dividers to group your todos.
Once you've figured out the order of the things in your todo list, you'll want to make sure every item on there has a clear, actionable step. And if an item doesn't have a clear next step, then you want to break it down.
Divide and conquer
Some items on your todo list will really be projects with multiple steps. You want to make sure you list those steps under the item so when you decide to work on it, it's clear what you should be doing. Otherwise you run the risk of seeing a big vague blob of work on your list and deciding to work around it.
Clarity makes even the most challenging and complex activities as simple as putting one step in front of the other. Anxiety about the unknown is one of the biggest reasons we avoid doing certain things. By proactively listing what those steps are, you make it easy for future you to simply check what the next step is to chip away at the big project.
How granular you should get with your todos is up to you. As long as you break them down to the point where it's clear what your next action should be, you're good.
As time goes on and your list grows, you want to make a habit of evaluating the contents. What tasks have shifted in priority, what tasks should really not be on your list, what tasks are missing.
While it's tempting to just keep adding things to your to-do list, you have to recognize that time is finite and you're simply not going to get to everything - at least not anytime soon. Keeping everything on never-ending list will only serve to make you anxious. This is where you have to be ruthless when it comes to eliminating tasks that you know you're just not going to do.
You have to be realistic with what you're capable of getting done otherwise your todo list goes from being a productivity tool to being a list of nice thoughts. Remember that it's not a list of what you'd like to do but a list of what you're going to do. That means scanning through your list daily and seeing what needs to be removed, added, or moved.
Sometimes the simplest systems are are all we need to stay organized in our day-to-day. By keeping in mind the four simple CORE steps you can upgrade your todo list skills and avoid needing a more complex system. Or if you use to-do lists as part of another system, you'll be better equipped to manage that part of the system - for example the Ivy Lee method.
Far from being just an inbox where tasks pile up, the humble to do list is capable of providing enough structure to be quite useful and lay the foundation for other productivity elements to layer on top of it. Systems like calendars or time management techniques like the pomodoro method or time blocking. So keep the CORE in mind next time you find yourself making a list - it might just be all you need.
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