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5 Tips for Refining Your To-Do List

If you're like me, then you live by your to-do list. I have a daily list of what I want to get done, and I get frustrated if I feel like I am not making enough headway. Most often, this is a result of overloading yourself. Putting too much in a to-do list is just setting yourself up for failure, so get more out of your list by being realistic and breaking down multi-step tasks. Here are some tips to help you improve the all-important daily to-do list:

1. Evaluate whether your list is realistic. Look at your list and consider if you can realistically accomplish those items in a day. People often forget to calculate travel time, down time (because you will need a break), lunch time, and set-up times for projects. Our minds usually err on the side of optimism when it comes to calculating the time it will take to accomplish something. Make sure you are including transition time for each task and also giving yourself a decent time buffer in order to maintain realistic daily goals and stay ahead of the game rather than always feeling a step behind.

I know what you're thinking. "I don't always have that option, because things need to get done." Yes, true story, however, it is also important to learn to say "no" when you realize that you are about to bite off more than you can chew. As productivity consultant David Allen says, "You can do anything, but you can't do everything."

2. Prioritize your tasks regularly. To-do lists usually fill up as tasks come in which means that some important things could be lingering right at the bottom of your list. It's worth taking the time to prioritize and reorder your list as more tasks come in so that you have a physical map of the road ahead. It's easier to keep important things from falling through the cracks when you keep them together at the top of your list. This will also keep you from having to sift through your entire list to decide what's next.

3. Break down your tasks. Let's say that you have a birthday party coming up and you need to get a gift for your friend Sara. Getting a gift is not always as simple as picking something up at the store. Often you need to take time to think about the person's interests, come up with ideas, and narrow them down before you pick the one to buy. Instead of writing "Get a gift for Sara" on your list, try, "Come up with five gift ideas for Sara". By breaking the task down, you have taken a step in the right direction and can move through your list quicker rather than procrastinating the task for later as we tend to do with multi-step or larger tasks.

4. Work around your natural rhythms. Some of us are morning people and some of us are night owls. If you're a morning person, don't waste that valuable positive energy first thing in the morning on busy work or answering emails. If you do your best thinking in the morning, then get your best work done in the morning and push the less cerebral tasks to the end of the day, if they can wait, of course. If your ideas come alive at night, then don't waste that free thinking energy on reruns of Fixer Upper (however great a show it may be). Instead, read, write or put that energy to good, productive use somehow. Now that you have prioritized your to-do list in order of importance, you should decide when to tackle certain items according to when you will produce the best work. If some items can wait until you are more mentally equipped to produce better work, then make the decision to schedule that task when you have the right energy for it.

5. Beware the rabbit holes. When you have a list of things you want to get done, try to stick to it as much as possible. This means avoiding taking on spontaneous projects that you discover need to be done along the way (I have trouble with this one sometimes) or falling into the social media, email, or online shopping rabbit holes. You know which rabbit holes pose a threat to you, so try to steer clear of getting sucked into the allure of online surfing. You can also limit yourself by using timed social media breaks as a reward for finishing a task.

Now, let's compare the following lists:

1. Get gift for Sara 1. Create mission statement for presentation

2. Plan presentation 2. Check pantry for items in cupcake recipe

3. Buy supplies for garden project 3. List 5 gift ideas for Sara

4. Make cupcakes for bake sale 4. Garage: fill one trash bag for donation

5. Clean out garage 5. List supplies needed for garden

The list on the left is a hefty day's work and most of the tasks take a lot of time and planning and traveling. The list on the right contains the very first steps needed to tackle the larger projects and is prioritized according to the importance of the projects. Once you have completed this very doable list on the right, write down the next actions needed to continue working toward your end goals. By using this method, you will make progress in all your projects without procrastinating the more intimidating ones.

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