Get Your To Do List Under Control

Man ticking of a Task list on a transparent window

Get Your To Do List Under Control

Practical Tips to Get Your To-Do List Under Control

In some ways, I envy Frodo Baggins. The daring Hobbit, central to the iconic fantasy series The Lord of The Rings, had just one item on his to-do list: to get The One Ring to Mordor. One task? If only we could all have it so simple!Ring with unreadable inscription. One ring to rule them all to represent one to-do list to rule them all.

Sadly, life in the real world isn’t quite so clear cut. We juggle multiple professional and personal projects, balance competing tasks and manage constant demands on our time. Many of us turn to the humble To-Do List as a way of tackling the endless number of jobs that make up daily life. Yet even these basic tools are never quite so simple, especially if they’re not harnessed effectively.

Your New Mantra: One List To Rule Them All!

One of the recurring themes of The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo’s ring has the power to control all others. There is a famous quote from the subsequent movie series that says: One Ring To Rule Them All. Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a work of fantasy, but this is an idea I think we can very much apply to the real world: One To Do List to rule them all…if you want to improve your productivity and manage your time more effectively.

The Power Of Simplifying

So how many To-Do Lists do you currently have? Come on, be honest… are you guilty of trying to manage more than one To-Do List? In my experience, many people do. If so, you could be doing yourself a major disservice and your productivity will suffer accordingly.

While to-do lists are meant to simplify our lives and work, if not properly managed they can become a source of stress. Trying to manage a large and unstructured to do list can become tasks themselves—completely defeating the purpose of having one to begin with!

If you do make daily to-do list or weekly to-do list, you’re not alone. Research has found that nearly three-quarters of us create daily to-do lists, yet alarmingly 41% of the tasks will linger on those lists without ever being completed.

Let’s help you manage your to-do list more effectively with these practical tips, and never forget: One List To Rule Them All!

What Does Your List Look Like?

Before you overhaul your to-do list to maximise its effectiveness, take a minute to analyse your current to-do list. Ask yourself:

  • Is your list up to date?
  • Does it contain all your tasks?
  • When does your list fail you?
  • Does it make your life easier, or does it stress you out at night thinking about the things that you didn’t finish?
  • Do you include the amount of time it will take to complete the task on your list?
  • Do you prioritise the items on your list or just write tasks randomly?

Many of my clients report making to-do lists in a variety of ways. Often, they’ll make several lists, and the ones they do create are not well-structured. Common methods people use to create their to-do lists include:

  • Using sticky notes
  • Using bits of scrap paper
  • Writing tasks in different notebooks with the to-do tasks highlighted throughout the book
  • Relying on memory alone instead of writing tasks down
  • Writing on the back of their hand (yes, I really do see this one!)

Why Such Methods Are Ineffective

The goal of any to-do list is to help you remember what needs to be done, prioritise your tasks, and create a system that makes it easy to accomplish those tasks. The methods many people use to manage their to-do lists however, are simply ineffective.

If you use sticky notes or scrap paper for your to-do list, they can be easily lost. At the very least, they are difficult to find when you need them. You have many things to keep track of throughout your day, so why would you create 5, 10, or even 20 separate notes to complicate that?

Similarly, if you write your items in a notebook and highlight them, it is too easy to miss your important actions. This method also makes it hard to prioritise. You end up flicking back and forth through your notebook to try to find a task. Usually, when you do find one, you won’t choose the high-priority task. Instead, you tend to find one that hasn’t been completed and choose it simply because it was the first one you were able to locate. That’s not an effective way to prioritise your work.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Even if you take pride in having a memory like a steel-trap, simply remembering your to-do list without writing it down is fraught with danger. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik researched the impact of uncompleted tasks on the brain, attempting to understand how we operate when working from memory alone.

She discovered that when you have a series of uncompleted tasks floating around your memory, your brain subconsciously snags on them and constantly reminds you that they are still incomplete. This kind of fragmented thinking can seriously harm your productivity and ability to focus, making it harder to get through the tasks you are working on. The phenomenon has become known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

Another problem with several of these methods is that some of the actions on your list are prone to human error. Post-its and scrap pieces of paper get lost or thrown away, or you simply forget to transfer the task when you switch from one medium to another (e.g., if you regularly use notebooks). Important tasks are easily lost.

So, What Should You Do?

Man ticking of a Task list on a transparent window

I’ve worked with many people over the years, and I’ve found the most effective methods for making and maintaining a to-do list are the simplest. Here are the To-Do list fundamentals that I’ve found work time and again in helping people manage their work loads, thereby making them more productive, focused and happier at work:

  1. Use one master list. Even if you maintain separate lists for different areas of your life, keep an updated master list to rule them all.
  2. Transfer actions from your notebook into a single list at the end of every day
  3. Develop a method that is easy, accessible, and convenient for you.

Not surprisingly, new technology also offers a range of solutions that can help streamline your task list. Here are a few of my personal recommendations. Try them and see which fits your preferences and lifestyle the best.

Use Outlook Tasks

Outlook Tasks is a wonderful system. It eliminates the cumbersome task of re-writing your to-do list on paper every few days. With Outlook Tasks, it’s very easy to add extra notes and commentary to your list, track your progress and set automatically recurring tasks. The best part about using Outlook Tasks is that you always know where your list is, and you never have to worry about losing it. If you’re not sure how to set it up, read my article explaining how to use Microsoft Outlook Tasks.

Use an App

Using a task list app is convenient and useful. You probably carry your mobile phone with you at all times, so your list is always accessible. Your list is in one place, and updating it regularly is very easy, especially if you enable notification reminders. There some very useful Apps available, but with Microsoft 365, you have access to Microsoft To Do, which is my favourite as it syncs between OneNote, Outlook and even Microsoft Teams.


In Conclusion

To-Do lists can be a key component in helping you organise your life and accomplish all the activities you need to get done, but not all methods are effective. Adopt a system that fits your working preferences and above all, consolidate them into one master list!


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, February 2018

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant

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Need help or advice managing your task lists or improving your productivity? Contact Lingford Consulting today.

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