Productivity Hacks: Making To-Do Lists

Growing up, one of my favorite movies was the 1950’s version of Cheaper by the Dozen. I remember being fascinated by Frank Gilbreth’s profession as an efficiency engineer.

There’s a scene as the movie is starting off where he buttons up his vest twice: in one trial he uses his left hand to snap the buttons and in the other trial he uses his right. I've not seen the movie in years and can’t remember which ended up being more efficient, but I do know that the film had a large impact on how I viewed the world growing up.

It’s one of those lessons of not knowing how non-universally good habits apply. I thought if the Gilbreth’s worked as a family to make things more logical and efficient, wasn't that what everyone was working toward?

That made sense to my young mind for trying to compartmentalize how people developed and matured (although to be fair, I also thought adults aged out of lying which, as it turns out, isn't true. Sorry, kids).

Of the programs I’ve looked at, I’ve not seen one course offered in K-12 schools or higher education on forming habits and developing personal efficiency. To be frank, I’ve not looked beyond what I’ve had at hand, so this blanket statement need not offend, but its intention still applies.

We don’t put a whole lot of emphasis, as a culture, at systematically bettering personal practices (and I’d argue that, while there’s more emphasis, on the majority we do a poor job at systematically bettering institutional practices as well).

While there are self-help books on the subject as well as people with huge amounts of willpower for change and improvement, no one really ever sits down to teach us how to examine our habits. This entails everything from why we've fallen into them, how they’re benefiting/hurting us, and the argument of whether to try and break the habit or form a new one.

In addition to our habits, we all have our own quirks. Whether it’s taking notes, making lists, setting appointments, checking emails, checking text reminders, getting grocery shopping done, or finding time to relax, we all have tips and tricks from which others can benefit.

I believe that we can continually improve in all aspects of our life; it’s just a matter of how willingly aware we are of our areas with room for improvement.

For today's productivity hack, I want to talk about list making. I’m not speaking about making a shopping list or an invite list for a party; rather, I’m talking about the all-important to-do list making which can make or break our day-to-day schedules.

This looks different for all of us in each of our respective jobs and roles. There are some similar patterns between each, however. With to-do list items, you can consider:

  1. The task’s scope: is the item on your list a broad or narrow task to accomplish?

  2. Your comfort level: is it an easy item for you to do or are there things you have to learn or put in place before you can do it?

  3. Deadlines that need to be met: is it something that someone else is depending on by a certain date or is when you have to get it done pretty flexible?

  4. Time the task takes: is it something that progresses at a slow pace or is it something you can knock out in 5 minutes? Even easy tasks can take a long time to complete and some difficult tasks, while mentally draining, don’t take too much time once you get started.

  5. Your motivation for it: is this something that, once complete, will be really beneficial to you and move you toward a goal or is this something that will hardly make a dent in your current day to day?

  6. The task’s consistency: is this something that you have to do every single day (like checking email) or is this a one-time or infrequent item that you’re trying to get checked off?

That’s a lot of things to keep swimming around in your head, especially when you’ve made a habit of list making and you have to think about these items daily or weekly. On top of that, these considerations do not even mention goal setting alongside to-do lists (oy-vey!).

To compound the problem further, humans tend to have issues when we have lots of things to decide on. The more decisions we have to make in a given period of time, the worse our decision making skills are.

So, how do you decide the answers to all these questions while not spending too much time making lists?

Without talking too much about goal setting, this is pretty tricky, but it can be done. And once you’ve answered these questions I think you’ll find you have a lot better understanding of your priorities. Let’s examine this in context by perfecting the to-do list I set myself for today:

  • Blog post

  • Support tickets

  • Phone call at 2

  • CC course video

  • Plan development

From the looks of it, this should be a breeze to get done in one day. Yet, this is much more of a brain dump than a list I could work off of. With each item on it, I can consider each point listed above and find out that:

  1. These are all pretty broad tasks with several tasks under them I could define more narrowly

  2. I’m comfortable doing each of them at least to a point where it would be time to hand off

  3. They each have varying “deadlines” - some hard, some soft, some self-inflicted

  4. The time each takes ranges from 45 minutes to 2 hours

  5. My motivation for the last 2 I wrote down is a lot higher than the first 3

  6. The first 2 are consistently repeating tasks either weekly or daily

Other things to note: each item on the list is very noun-y. Nothing about the list encourages me to take action. I can easily change this just by putting a verb in front:

  • Write blog post

  • Answer support tickets

  • Call Fred at 2

  • Watch course video

  • Make decision on new working hours time display

This is a bit more motivating, but still, this isn't a very attractive list because by the end of it, I’ll have done a lot yet not feel all that accomplished. So I can try to narrow the scope of each task:

  • Brainstorm topics for blog post

  • Answer question: “What do you want reader to gain from reading this blog post?”

  • Write blog post with that answer in mind

  • Publish post on blog

  • Share blog post on social outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus)

  • Answer support tickets

  • Report any issues from support tickets to development

  • Add reminders in calendar for when to follow up with both parties on any reported issues

  • Write down 5 questions you want to ask Fred at 2

  • Call Fred to discuss questions and get answers

  • Send email to Fred thanking him for his time

  • Read over notes from last course video to freshen up

  • Watch newest course video and take notes

  • Add reminder in calendar for when I need to have course homework done

  • Speak with development team for working hours use cases

  • Lay out solutions for each use case

  • Consider variations in each use cases application

  • Decide which working hours display is most versatile

Ahhh, now we’re getting there. That feels a lot better. I know I have a ton more things on my list, but each item is easier to do than the bigger items up top and gets me moving into my day a lot faster.

There is still a lot more we can do with this list as far as prioritizing and helping to schedule tasks that happen on a consistent basis, but we’ve made a lot of improvement for one day.

I hope today's tip has been helpful & you'll add this to your productivity toolbox!

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