Stop me if this rings a bell: It is the start of a new day, you take a look at all the things you have to-do today. You have a full day ahead of you to get things done.
Fast forward to later that evening. Your time to work is almost up, you still have so much left to do and the deadline to complete them is drawing near. You are likely going to be staying up late just to get them done in time. I know I had my fair share of those days
While I may have spent each day crossing off my tasks, taking minimal breaks each day, by the end of the day I had accomplished almost nothing meaningful. This was because I kept making the same mistake every single day:
I was making not making a SMART To-Do List.
If I wanted to make sure I was getting the most done each day I had to figure out a way to improve my To-Do List. Fortunately for me, I discovered a way that helped increased my productivity by 1000%.
What Makes A Good To-Do List?
As Charles Durhigg describes in, Smarter Faster Better, a To-Do List should have the most important task first. Although, many of us don’t do this and fall into a spiral of spending each day finishing the easiest tasks first while leaving the more essential ones unfinished.
One of the reasons why we often don’t do the most important tasks first is because we tend to build our To-Do list, but do not consider why they’re on there in the first place. Sure, if I work on a task I would happy to have finished it, but is its purpose valuable enough to focus on?
Most of the time the answer is no. We like to think that completing the task is as equally rewarding as the others on our list, but what ends up happening is that we focus on the wrong tasks we want to complete.
We feel what is known as Authentic Pride, otherwise known as the joy given when we feel like we’re accomplishing something. However, this is not true authentic pride, rather a dopamine effect we get when we cross off a few items on our list.
While it is definitely beneficially to write down your To-Do list down on paper, or use an electronic To-Do builder like Habitica or To-Do Ist, this is almost meaningless if the list is built without a thoughtful approach.
To make the most impacting To-Do List, these three rules are essential:
- There needs to be a reason for doing the tasks
- It should follow your stretch goals
- There needs to be flexibility
Building A Better To-Do List
In order to figure out what tasks we should focus on it’s a important to think about why we want to focus on them in the first place. Once each item does have a reason figured out, it becomes clearer which ones take precedence over the other.
To figure out what are the most important tasks to focus on, follow along with me with this simple exercise:
- Take out a sheet of paper or your favorite electronic note taking software
- Separate the list into two columns, one titled To-Dos the other titled Reason
- Write down all the things you want to complete by the end of the week in the To-Do column. (1 sentence is more than enough)
- Once you finish your To-Do column, review each item and write down why you want to do it in the Reason column. (Again, 1 sentence is more than enough)
Now that you have a clear idea of what each task is and your motivation for doing them, pick out the top four to five most meaningful tasks (sound familiar?) and put them onto another list. By now your list should look something like this:
This list you have created is now what we call your Weekly Stretch Goals.These items on your list are not things you should expect to complete in one day rather they will be broken down to smaller tasks completed throughout the week.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is to create what is known as SMART Goals.
Defining SMART Goals
SMART goals have been a popular way of formatting To-Do List for quite some time now, and that is not surprising. When trying to plot out an effective To-Do List, SMART Goals can become an extremely practical tool to help plan that out. Some of you may be asking yourself,
“What are SMART Goals?”
SMART goals is an acronym used to define each item on a To-Do List and how needs to be worked on. It stands for:
- Specific – What needs to be accomplished
- Measurable – How the task will be broken down
- Achievable – What needs to be done to fully focus
- Realistic – How you plan on reaching this focus
- Timeline – When it will be completed
To help illustrate this let me use an example of one stretch goals I have on my list:
Publish an Application on the Google Play Store
Right here I have a clear, Specific, goal of what I want accomplished by the end of the week. The next step is to divide up this project into smaller, Measurable, tasks that can be accomplished throughout the week:
- An interface needs to be designed
- The application needs to be coded
- The application needs to fully functional
- The application needs to be published
The next step is to formulate a plan on how I will achieve this. I am able to delegate 2-3 hours on this project on days I work, while the days I have off I can spend more time on the harder tasks. To make this Achievable, I have to schedule in what times are best suited to perform what tasks.
Now the only way to make this Realistic is if I define certain rules for myself to work on this task. During the time dedicated to the project I will be closing my e-mail, leaving my phone on silent, and only work on this task during the allocated tasks.
Break it down on a day-by-day basis, the Timeline would look something like this:
- Day 1: Create project’s user interface
- Day 2: Code the project to perform basic operations
- Day 3: Add any additional features to the project
- Day 4: Test and fix any bugs
- Day 5: Finalize and publish
Writing this SMART goal took less than 2-3 minutes to complete. This task is now delegated from one huge project to much smaller, manageable, tasks that I can complete throughout the week. It also gives me a better idea of what I should be focusing on doing the day and what other items should be handled later.
Which leads me to the final component for building a To-Do List
Your To-Do List Should Be Flexible
One of the last, but most important parts of your To-Do list is that it needs to have room for flexibility. There are going to be days where something pops up and you can’t accomplish your To-Do list as expected. This doesn’t mean you should completely stop yourself from working towards your goals, instead that task should be revised to a fit a more realistic goal for the week.
A fundamental thing to keep in mind is that designing effective SMART Goals is not something that can be done once per week. SMART Goals should be created, then reviewed and updated daily.
This is because new To-Dos will always be popping up throughout the week and it is impossible to gauge your priorities days in advanced. I would personally recommend having two to-do lists. One that has your weekly SMART Goals, and one that has your every day goals.
Each day, before writing your daily To-Do list, spend some time thinking about what you need to accomplish for the day. Analyze how you plan on approaching each tasks. Richard Plepler, HBO’s CEO, does something similar to this by doing non-religious prayer 15 minutes a day. I personally spend 5 minutes a day meditating to go through what I need to do throughout the day.
Regardless of what mental exercise you plan on doing, remember to keep your SMART Goals in mind when creating your list.
I hope that this entry helped anyone who is struggling with their every day tasks.I know since changing how I do my To-Dos I have started seeing a noticeable increase in finishing my Challenge List goals.
Just to leave off, you do not have to do your To-Do lists in this exact format. Some people have different ways they approach tasks and that is perfectly fine.The important thing is to experiment with how to create To-Do list and see what works for you. For me, SMART goals have been a tremendous help to increase my productivity, for others, this may not be the case.
Whatever the case, just remember your To-Do list is not just how many items you cross off, but what you improve on when you do it. Stay strong, and keep pushing forward.