Get More Done with a Shorter To-Do List

The secret to a smart to-do list: Keep it short and keep it simple. Far from curtailing productivity, restricting your to-dos will make you more effective. Limiting your list to no more than three or five items will set you up to accomplish more. A short to-do list forces you to set priorities and focus your attention. “If you make yourself pick five items, you will get them done, and odds are they were the best use of your time,” says time management pro Laura Vanderkam. She is the author of “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.“

Consider these guidelines for an effective to-do list.

Set priorities.

Don’t fall into the trap of crowding more than you can possibly handle into one 24-hour day. You’ll face distractions, interruptions and diversions. When you recognize that time to hit your goal is a finite resource, you’ll start to think about putting the most important tasks first. 

Know what each task involves.

A major part of making a to-do list manageable is knowing what each task will require. Judge each to-do realistically on whether the goal is truly one item or involves multiple tasks. For example, if your day’s goal is “start a business”, you’re going to be drawing up a marketing strategy, hiring an accountant to handle taxes, incorporating the firm and finding a location for the office. Every one of those items is going to require a number of steps.

Break up the big jobs.

Give some thought to breaking up big goals into manageable chunks as you write your to-do list. You’ll avoid setting yourself up for prolonged procrastination. Often, people don’t what steps are involved when they give themselves a large task. Once they investigate and find that one to-do can’t be knocked off in 8 hours, they’ll start pushing the item further down the list. The job doesn’t get accomplished, more tasks are added, and eventually the to-do list is overwhelming and continually unfinished. Set reasonable deadlines. 

Plan the coming week.

Write your to-do list every Friday before the coming week ahead. You’ll get a better sense of both your long-term and your immediate needs. Include commitments you’ve already made (deadlines, appointments, meetings) and the things you’d like to see accomplished.

Write the night before.

Use your weekly priorities to compile a list the night before the following day. This gives you a tool so that you’ll be focused and ready to go the next morning. Make the biggest task of the day the first task and knock it off before you move on to the next.

“To-do lists actually save time,” says Vanderkam. “You don’t spread your decision-making out over the day. You devote a bit of time to deciding what to do then you do it. It’s much more efficient.”

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