To-do lists should make our lives easier. They should help us identify what's most important and what task to tackle next. But our to-do lists are often in such poor shape that they actually hinder our productivity. They then become an obstacle to getting things done instead of a useful tool.
Not understanding what should be on a to-do list and what shouldn't seems to be the core of the problem. Too often our lists are more of a brainstorm or rough notes than an actual task list. As a result, we waste our time deciphering our list instead of executing.
So here are 3 keys to making your to-do list useful and effective:
1. Use a verb to start each task
Seeing "Marketing report" or "Jane" on your to-do list will force you to do more thinking than necessary. Without an actionable description, you will waste time decoding your own words.
Adding a verb to the beginning of each task will clarify what you actually need to do. Words such as Call, Review, Find, and Email help to zero in on what needs to be done and what tools or setting may be necessary to complete the task.
2. Have each task take less than 2 hours to complete
When scanning a to-do list, our eyes tend to zero in on tasks that can be completed in a short amount of time. Items such as "Redesign website" or "Write book" often remain on our lists too long. They become too daunting and we struggle to determine what the next step in the process is.
The problem is that these are not actually tasks. They're projects and they need to be parsed out into actionable chunks. By applying an estimated time limit of less than 2 hours, we force ourselves to keep only tasks on our to-do list. "Create new homepage menu" and "Write Chapter 3 draft" are tasks that we can jump right into without overthinking the next step.
3. Only include tasks within a 2 week time frame
This isn't to say that you won't have any tasks due after 14 days. Of course you will. But if those tasks show up on today's list, you're making it hard on yourself to stay focused.
Your to-do list should only consist of short-term tasks. It should be short and specific so you can apply laser focus to those things you need to complete now. Don't tempt yourself to complete something that's due next month when you have 7 other things that are due this week.
To get the most out of your to-do list, you need to make it easy to start crossing things off. So make them actionable, make them doable in a single sitting, and keep them within a 2 week time frame.