Top Five Rules for a To-Do List that REALLY works

By Sara Caputo

People often ask me what tool I rely on most to stay on track, focused and productive. Hands down, it is my to-do list, AKA my “second brain”. I call it a second brain because it literally houses information for me that I can’t and don’t want to hold in the brain inside my head. It holds the minutiae, the details, the doodles, the little things that help my world stay balanced.

It’s important to get these things out of our heads so our minds can be free to do the REAL work, like think and solve problems. When our minds are bogged down with the minutiae, it can’t get to the “good” stuff!

I have become very passionate about this area of my business and I offer “to-do list/task management” coaching. While many smile and look at me as though I’m crazy, once we get into talking about their space, time and tasks, this piece of their puzzle quickly becomes the most important part to get clear about. Why?

Because we have a million things coming at us every day. It’s impossible to hold all of this in our heads and still be calm, collected and, most importantly, focused on the task in front of us without trying to remember that we have to return that phone call or pick up the dry cleaning.

Here are my top 5 to-do list tips:

1. Understand the different lists you might need.

Your to-do list should not be a mish-mash of everything you need to do in the next 6 months. For this, you need a MASTER to-do list. To break tasks down and not feel overwhelmed, most people need a daily to-do list and a master to-do list. Can you quickly identify items that would go on each? Often what I see is people using their MASTER to-do list as their daily, which immediately leads to frustration and limited productivity.

So, tip #1 is to break apart your current to-do list and create a master project list.

2. Be specific.

A large reason that most people don’t get through their daily to-do list is because the items they have listed are too big and not specific enough. The steps to a project are what constitute as to-do items, not the project title itself. The project title belongs on your master project list, while the steps involved in accomplishing that project are what belong on your daily list.

For example: Sales Management Team Meeting is the title of the project and the steps are: calls you need to make, rooms you need to reserve, delegations to others involved, agendas that need to be created, catering, etc… These would be broken down and on your daily list.

3. Cross things off when you are done.

One of the biggest culprits to not feeling successful at the end of the day is when we don’t take time to cross things off as we go. When we do this, we are able to look back on our day and feel like we made some progress, even if it was only a small amount. Ultimately, when there are many things left on your list and the end of the day is approaching, crossing off what you have done is a good practice and helps you make decisions about what else you have time to accomplish.

4. Review and process all lists on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Just as our email inbox needs to be processed and dealt with on a daily basis, so do our task lists. I personally re-create my daily list every single day. At the end of the day, I start the next page with the date at the top and rip out the current day. This forces me to move things forward and process where I’m at with my tasks. If something didn’t get done, it goes back on the master list. If I have time the next day, it goes on that day. The same goes for master project lists. Let them stack up for a month and then re-write them.

Whether you do this on an excel spreadsheet, using Microsoft One Note or a plain old notebook, lists need to be processed and thus constantly move in a forward direction. A huge value in re-writing and re-processing lists is that, once you write it down and it’s out of your head, your brain actually starts working on that task in subtle ways, which means you’re getting ahead before you even start!

5. Take your to-do list with you everywhere you go. (And do the same for your home/personal life).

Many people make great lists, but don’t have them when they need them most. If you are going to invest time and effort into the creation of lists, then by all means, take them with you! This way, you can be constantly assessing and moving things around based on where you are with your day. This allows you to be in total control of what you have done, need to do and plan to do. You wouldn’t leave home without your first brain, so why leave home without your second brain?

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