Learning to learn: 5 ways to optimize your to-do list

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The age old to-do list — a common tool to help get $#&T done. In my years of to-do listing, I’ve discovered that it is often this common productivity activity that actually prevents me from being optimally productive. Yes, counter-intuitive, but true. This oft bottleneck-in-disguise makes me feel like I am a super hero, that in fact, yes I can finish 2908329874 tasks in the next three hours while simultaneously cooking for a dinner party and writing my novel.

In real life, this is not true. I’ve devised a few ways to prevent to-do list overload by means of insightful curation (hey, sounds familiar..) of what I need to accomplish, by when, and by priority. This curation of item, time, day, and other items to be discussed below help me maximize my time-to-task ration and kick some major life butt.

So, without further ado, 5 ways to optimize your to-do list!

1. Brain cleanse: Sit down. Get out a notebook. Write down every single thing you need to do for the next week. Everything from “water plants” to “write that news article I’m late on.” Once its all out of your brain, you will be able to have a clear picture of the scale of what you have to accomplish so you can plan accordingly. This major list will help you with the next few steps toward an optimized to-do list.

2. Grouping: In a restaurant, waitresses batch tasks to make their every movement more efficient. You can use the same idea to make your to-do lists more efficient.

Using your major list, you can create “groups” of tasks that can be done in compliment to one another, based on their type, location, or function. For instance, if you need to organize your receipts for an expense report and type up an email to your real estate agent, these tasks can be assigned to the same group because of their proximity to the computer. The same can be said for errand runs, such as dropping by a bank that is next to your local grocery store, etc.

3. Timing: The time allotment for tasks always comes back to haunt me. After many failed lists due to timing, I’ve found that allotting 1 hour per task is the correct amount (yes, even for tasks like “pick up milk from the store.”) I’ve found that building this time in prevents last minute crazed attempts to do 6 things at once because you’ve run out of time.

So, if you only have 3 hours until your next obligation, set yourself up with 3 tasks to complete. And no cheating! 3 hours is a perfect amount of time to stay productive without losing focus, so for the interests of this exercise, lets work with this number.

4. Splitting: After I’ve grouped all my tasks into major groups, I’ll split each of those major groups into smaller series of threes. Once I’ve made these sub-groups, they become much more manageable chunks to deal with during a busy week.

5.  Layering: Now this is where it gets fun. Pull out your calendar or open up your calendaring application. Identify blocks of time where you could complete a group of 3 tasks, as you’ve split your task load into from above. Then assign each 3 hour block with a split group from your major list.

You could also build your list into your existing calendaring. Simply create an event in the correct time block with the three tasks you need to accomplish. Set reminders for yourself so you can get the most out of your time.

Optimizing a to-do list will help with several things. You’ll learn to better (and more realistically) manage your time, have a more sustained sense of progress over your task load, and will also lose the sense of foreboding that often leads to procrastination of important tasks. Curating the tasks in it is one step toward a more meaningful day.


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10 years ago

Great tips – the To-Do list keeps growing and piling up. I’m going to start today!

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