Four Tips for Re-Thinking Your To-Do List for Greater Productivity

‘Tis the season to be busy. At this time of year, my to-do list makes me hyperventilate. Fear not. I have some tips that can help you minimize stress and get more done.

Tip #1: Start With Something You Like

Put something you like to do at the top of your to-do list. When you start off your day with something you enjoy, it can help motivate you to action. I often find that when I start my day with something pleasant, my attitude is much better and I’m more willing to dive into icky tasks like cleaning the bathroom.

Tip #2: Shorten Your List

Yes, that’s what I said. Choose the three most important items for the day. Write them on a piece of paper, whiteboard or sticky note, whatever works for you—but make sure there is a physical reminder of what your priorities for the day are. These items are your do-or-die items, the I-will-not-go-to-sleep-tonight-until-these-are-done items.

By selecting only three tasks (instead of 10? 15? 25?), you help your brain focus and eliminate some of the stress that goes with trying to keep so many tasks in mind at once. Being laser focused can help you quickly reject tasks that are not on the list and make space for the ones that really matter for today.

Before you scoff, give it a try and see what happens to your ability to concentrate. I’ve found that this works especially well on weekends when there are 15-20 things I’ve told myself I “should” do, but I’ve given zero thought about what’s important or how realistic the ever-growing list is. For some reason, having only three items on the list makes it easier to hunker down and get started—and getting started always seems to be the hardest part. In fact, I usually get done when there are only three items on my list.

Tip #3: Examine the Thoughts Behind the Tasks

Our thoughts determine how we feel and respond to situations, so if you feel overwhelmed by your task list, take a look at the thoughts you have attached to each task. So, step one would look like this:

Task Thoughts About the Task

Go ahead and brain dump onto paper to get all the stuff swimming in your head out. Once you’ve unloaded, step two is to you can come up with a different thought about each task that is more positive than the Debbie-downer thinking.

Simply getting the task and thoughts out of your head and onto paper can help you detach and see the tricks your mind is playing on you. I did this exercise the other day and it helped me realize all the negative crap I was telling myself, e.g., “This is going to take forever. I’ll never get it done today. It’s going to be really hard to get a hold of people and get everything organized.”

After reading through all those Debbie-downer thoughts parading through my brain, no wonder I didn’t want to do the tasks. Who would?

But I had to laugh at myself. There was no way each task on my list could be nearly as horrible as my brain was telling me it was. So for each task, I replaced my Debbie-downer thought with something more positive, but still believable, like, “Maybe it won’t take as long as I think. This could actually be fun to. Maybe it won’t be hard…”

As a result of trying on a new thought, my attitude about the task shifted. I also prioritized the tasks (see Tip #2) so that the list didn’t feel so long and daunting. Lo and behold, I got everything on the list done (plus some!) with vim and vigor instead of drama and angst.

Tip #4: Connect Your Tasks to a Core Value

Sometimes what can stop our forward progress is that the task in front of us seems pointless. One way to overcome task inertia is to explore these questions:

  • Why am I doing this task?

  • What value will I be honoring?

While it may seem like a simple question, the truth is that most of us go blindly through our days doing things we “have” to do without thinking about the reasons why. If you don’t know why you’re doing the task or what value it’s honoring, dig a little deeper to see why it’s on your list in the first place. If it’s not important and you don’t know why you’re doing it, ditch it! If you like your reason why and can connect it to a core value, then it might be easier to go for it.

  • What are the likely consequences of not doing the task?

Remember, you can always choose not to do the task. Sometimes, simply realizing we still have a choice can help motivate us.

  • Whose approval am I trying to gain? Asking this question can help you determine whether you are trying to please yourself or someone else. And if you’re trying to please someone else, are you sure this task is really the way to do it? Some of us often take on tasks we believe will please another person, only to find out that our efforts go unnoticed. Make sure you understand the real reason you’re doing the task, and if it’s to please someone else, you better be sure it’s something they want done.

  • By avoiding the task, what else am I avoiding?

There are generally two reasons we don’t do things: we don’t know how or we have some belief about it that causes fear. So, ask yourself whether you have all the information you need or if you need to be taught. Find a helpful resource if you don’t know how to do something. On the other hand, if you’ve attached a belief to the task, e.g., “I suck at this,” then you’re not likely to improve or even try. Instead, you could see what it’s like to tell yourself, “I’m figuring this out” or “I’m learning something new.” How does a different thought impact your motivation?

Do you have tips of your own? I’d love to hear what works for you when it comes to tackling your to-do list.

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