A good To Do list may be just what you need to help you stay effective during difficult times.
How does your To Do list make you feel?
Now, I love a list. I’m the sort of person that makes a list for everything. It helps my memory and it keeps me on track with what needs to get done. BUT – throughout my life, there have been periods where a To Do list was a cause for an inward groan, a spike of anxiety and a thought of “here we go again, too much to do” – and that was within the first few seconds of looking at it! Starting the working day this way was a recipe for negativity and overwhelm, right out of the starting gates.
These days I’ve refined my To Do List making skills, to retain all of the good bits, but to avoid the weaponization of the To Do list. Here are some top tips to help you to stay positive and motivated when using a To Do list to manage a busy day:
- Write down any task or ‘don’t forget’ item as soon as you think of it. This frees up valuable brain working memory to focus on doing the tasks, rather than on retaining that piece of precious info. It also reduces the associated anxiety that can often be felt when you think ”Oh, another thing to do!” Putting it safely on hold elsewhere, without being forgotten.
- Create 2 lists – What?? You said just one could be overwhelming. Well it can be. Create a Long To Do List and a short ToDay list. The Long list is the big brain dump of everything you can possibly think of that you need to do. Everything. You’ll almost certainly never do all of them, not because you aren’t good enough, but because very often tasks that seem urgent one day just aren’t that important later, or get superceded by something else. Then create a ToDay list of simply 3 items and put the Long List away. That’s it – just 3. When you finish, you can always revisit the long list and bring across another 3 items. This short list feels achievable and reduces overwhelm. Yes, we know you have the Long List squirreled away, but your brain just looks at the short term focus. You’ll be more likely to feel positive and motivated if the list looks achievable.
- Make it satisfying to check off the list – whether it’s a sound on your phone as you tick off on an app, or whether it’s a tick or a cross-out on your paper list (I favour the strong cross out on paper myself 😊) this acknowledgement of completion gives the brain a little jolt of success, along with accompanying reward chemicals. An ideal state from which to feel satisfied with a job done, as well as leaving you ready and spurred on to do the next thing.
- Be realistic about what can be done in the time available – Try not to write your list from a place of what ‘should’ be done and instead consider what’s possible. Look at your diary. If you have a day full of meetings, don’t set yourself up with a list of weighty tasks that will never get done. You’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, consider what time is available and which of the higher priority tasks can fit into the gaps. You’ll feel positive and effective, without feeling overwhelm. You can only achieve what’s possible in the time available, and a positive, motivated you will be more efficient than a stressed-out, defensive one.
- Finally, include a mind/body maintenance task on your list. Actually write down (and tick off) some rest, exercise, mindfulness practice or simply a walk outside for 5 minutes. If it’s on the list we’ll prioritise it accordingly. We know that if we take this time for a brain break or pit stop, we’ll be more positive and motivated when we start on the rest of the list again.
Choose your To Do list tools – paper and pen, an app, post-it notes – whatever works for you. Then try applying these tips to see if you can make your To Do list your friend rather than your foe.
Let me know how you get on…