I've been using to-do lists both at work and at home for the past few years now. And while I couldn't complain about my overall performance, there was always something not right about the way I'd used them, yet I couldn't tell what exactly it was.
Just a few weeks ago I've finally realised what had been troubling me for so long: my to-do lists! What you're about to read may seem obvious and simple enough, but trust me: I really wish someone had explained to me this reason of my daily frustration a long time ago! So here it is: my own to-do lists revolution!
My original to-do lists setup
I had hand-written lists for each day in my A4 year planner, I would usually prepare such lists at the end of a previous day. Having finished all the work, I would take 5 minutes of my time before leaving my workplace to summarize the day's achievements and overview the stuff I never got a chance to work on to the following day's to-do list. I would also cross off all the completed tasks to make sure I can see my progress.
I had originally used the page-a-day approach. So no matter how few or many tasks I'd have for the day, they all would be on only 1 page for this day. But I quickly learned that such an approach is one of the worst possible. Simply because it doesn't work unless you manage to finish every single task you had planned for your day.
It all became obvious after I failed to complete the whole list of planned things for a day, and had to somehow keep track of the things so that they get my attention paid to them at some later stage. And this is where I saw just how ineffective it was to try and support this approach in any way possible. No matter what you do, you're going to lose time. I couldn't let this happen for any longer, and so that's how my to-do lists revolution began. Below are the 5 steps I've gone through to come up with the most effective way of dealing with my daily tasks so far. Having improved my process so much, I'm absolutely certain there is room for even more improvement, so I'll be sure to describe it on my pages later.
Reviewing the past few day's to-do lists
The first thing I tried was to make the review of the past few days’ lists my daily routine. This worked reasonably well while I had a backlog of few days, but it became a nightmare as soon as the backlog grew to more than two weeks. Having more and more tasks on my new to-do lists and trying to do follow up with the really important tasks, I could spend less and less time looking back and review some old stuff. Yet, now and then I'd realised something which was left out and didn't seem to be important when it was a week old, is quite urgent now that it's been few weeks since I never got a chance to deal with this task. So after struggling for a while, I gave this method up.
Keeping track of all the incomplete tasks
Secondly, I've decided to start moving all the incomplete tasks to the following day's plan. I made it a rule - never start adding items to the current day's to-do list unless I'm positive all the previously forgotten or never deal with tasks are at the top of this list. Again, it worked for a while, but as the list of tasks grew, I'd realised my daily to-do list routine is slowly turning into nothing but stupid rewriting of my previous days’ to-do lists. I would actually waste my precious time by making yet another list of something I couldn't find time to do.
Basic scheduling - marking the stand and end dates for tasks
So the next thing I figured I needed to incorporate into my routine was scheduling. It makes perfect sense - to mark the date when adding something to your to-do list. You need it for historical purposes. Trying to improve the previous paragraph's idea, I started not only rewriting all the incomplete tasks of mine, but also putting the date of each tasks’ origination alongside. This helped a lot. This made it obvious that some tasks have been left unattended for way too long. This improved the decision-making because it was clearly seen again how bad a backlog of things I had. It saves my time of thinking back and trying to remember when I was actually going to do a given task, and the date of its supposed start provided the urgency reminder I really found useful. Still, it was not enough, so I've tried to see what else would really help me optimize my process.
Throw away your to-do lists
This was the stage where I was much more efficient compared to where I started. So not only I was motivated to continue improving my process, but I also started thinking of changing the most basic parts of it. I've realised that one of the things which was noticeably slowing me down was the fact that I used to-do lists and no other way of keeping track of my tasks.
Even as simple thing as a review of my to-do list for the day would take much longer due to a simple fact that no matter what I did, all the tasks were still left on the same page. So when I would have a task or two completed, I'd tick them off or even color-mark them as being really completed, but this would still leave these tasks on my page. And no matter how hard you try to skip these tasks knowing that they're completed, you still lose some time quickly glancing through them. Time lost on glancing once a day is not so harmful when you think about it. But if you have to get back to your list more than a few times during your day, you'll start noticing how this very glancing through to-do list slows you down.
And that's how I decided to get rid of to-do lists completely. Instead, I've got myself a 5-section A4 organizer, and started using the smallest post-it notes I could find to manage my tasks for the day. So one section of this organizer would be used for all the tasks for the current day. Another section would be the one for the tasks for the whole current week. There's also one for the month (where I temporarily put EVERYTHING that doesn't belong to this week's plan), and there's the completed tasks section.
The main reason for switching to post-its is that I can accomplish all the things I did with to-do lists (like tracking tasks, marking the start dates and marking tasks as deferred or completed ones), PLUS I can MOMENTARILY get completed tasks out of the plan for today. If it sounds too simple for the best to-do list optimization trick, TRY IT yourself!
I can't emphasize enough the sheer pleasure and feeling of satisfaction you have when you mark a tasks completed, and then immediately detach it from current day's list and physically move it into the completed section. As you progress through your day, or get to visibly notice the amount of things left to be done. As soon as something's done, you get rid of it - and therefore you can simply see the current state of things by glancing at a page quickly. Many post-its - many tasks, few post-its - few tasks. It's that simple!
Completion dates for all the tasks
Now that I've made a major progress in my daily planning, I only felt like tweaking the process a bit to make it even better. So one of the things I've finally decided to start doing is putting completion dates for all the tasks. Combined with the start dates I've been adding to my tasks for some time by now, completion dates gave me the last bit of comfort I needed to make sure I'm doing the best I can. If start dates were there to ensure I know exactly when I'd put the task on my list and to help me realise the urgency and growing importance of some tasks, the completion dates helped me analyze whether I was coping with the load okay, or whether some particular kinds of tasks were constantly forgotten about, or whether some taks took much longer that I originally expected. All I need now is to have a half-an-hour a week spent solely on such analysis - as any tweaks I made to my planning based based on such analysis results have the potential to bring my performance to an even higher level.
What happens now?
That's all I've done so far. My To-Do Lists Revolution isn't fully over, but it starts to look and - more importantly - feel like an evolution to me now. There's no major part to change in the process as I'm very happy with the results. I'm spending less time planning and managing my daily tasks, and with the revolution I've gone through I'm not afraid of any tasks - no matter how big or complex. I'm still working on other possible ways to improve my daily planning approach, so who knows - maybe once day I'll have another revolution to blog about! ;) Till then - good luck!
Gleb Reys is the author of Personal Development Ideas blog where he describes his own self-improvement experiments and writes articles on productivity, problem solving, communication skills and motivation.