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The To-Do List is Not Dead! Craft the Ultimate List so You will (Actually) Check Those Boxes

by Julie Miles / January 11, 2024

Many people are motivated by to-do lists. We get excited writing down all our tasks, promising ourselves to cross each one off by the end of the day. But somehow, those lists are never completed. Often, we rarely get even halfway through.

One of the common challenges with to-do lists is that they are created only to be continually tossed aside for seemingly more urgent tasks. You get distracted by in-the-moment details like answering emails or fresh assignments and never get back to those important items on your list. Each uncompleted to-do list then adds to the pile and can reduce your motivation over time.

Fortunately, the to-do list isn’t dead. You just need a more actionable approach so that you actually start crossing off those items or checking those boxes. In this blog, we will explore the steps to prepare a list, how to organize and categorize your to-do’s, and what it takes to really get things done.

State Your Values and Goals Before Making a To-Do List

Many people skip the first important step of a completable to-do list: your goals and values. That makes sense. A to-do list is a list of actions you want to take, and goals are more abstract. You may already know that simply listing your goals isn’t going anywhere. But knowing your goals is a whole other matter. One that can make a real difference.

Stating your values and goals can help direct which items make it to the top of your to-do list. They can also help you organize your lists based on which goals you want to pursue at a specific time.

The Satisfaction of Crossing Off To-Do List Items

Once a task is complete, check that item off your list with pride. At the core of a to-do list’s effectiveness is the satisfaction of crossing or checking off each item. In fact, each completed task can help you build motivational momentum to complete the rest.

Your brain actually gives you a dopamine and norepinephrine (Happiness and Accomplishment) reward when you complete items on a to-do list. This is why we use them in the first place. 

Remember to cross off items and optimize your strategy so that you are constantly checking items off your list one task at a time.

Keep It Organized and Simple with Multiple To-Do Lists

Have you ever noticed that the longer your to-do list, the less you get done? This is because to-do lists work best when your mind sees bite-sized tasks ahead. A short to-do list gives you an “I can do that” feeling, and confidence that you’ll feel good when the last item is crossed off. You can quantify how long a short list might take you and plan your time, while a longer list quickly escapes these motivating mental structures.

The best way to stay motivated is to keep your to-do lists short, organized, and simple. Use smaller lists with tasks in practical groups that you can more easily complete. Even in a very busy day, you will cross off more items completing batches of small to-do lists instead of tackling a big list from beginning to end.

Categorize Your Master List

If you want to write down every task for the day or keep a compilation of tasks as you receive them, you can. Just organize these tasks into different categories. Make sure that chores like “Buy more milk” and projects like “Wireframe the app UI” are not next to each other, or they will muddle your motivation.

Group your master-list of tasks by category. Similar tasks are easier to complete in a group and you can break up your day based on which type of task you typically focus on at different times.

Limit Each To-Do List to 5 Items

When making an individual to-do list, never add more than 5 items at a time. If you have more than 5 items in a category, break the bigger list into clusters of five or less. If you complete the first five-item list, celebrate by activating your next list of five.

Address One Category At a Time

Keep your to-do lists organized by category and address one category of tasks at a time. You can complete a list of five household chores in a whirlwind or line up and knock-out five work tasks in a row. But going back and forth between is more likely to interrupt your focus on completing the list as a whole.

Note: You can always update your categories to better match your schedule if certain task-groupings work well together but were not originally in the same category – like cooking dinner and organizing the cabinets at the same time.

“Chunk” Longer Lists into Smaller Task Sets

If you find any list getting too long, break it into chunks. This is true even if the tasks are all part of one project. You can always start with a master list and then build sets of five-task lists from the larger set.

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Write Tasks, Not Goals

The next major trick is to make sure you are writing tasks, not goals. Goals are too general and they are hard to mark as truly complete. Things like “Organize files” is much harder to tackle than “Date and label images from photo shoot” or “Archive documents from last year.” Your tasks should align with your goals, but each item on  your to-do list should be a short, actionable task.

Start With a Verb

List every task on your to-do lists starting with a verb. Verbs are action words telling you exactly how you’re supposed to complete each task. Be specific and also choose words that are encouraging.

For example: “Marketing Images” is not a good task item. “Design infographics for product campaign,” however, tells you which step to take.

Break Group Tasks Into Individual Tasks

Some tasks naturally come in groups that you may want to list as a single item. List them as separate tasks instead. Continuing our example, let’s say you need 3 infographics. Instead of listing them as a cluster, write “Product Guide Infographic,” “Lifecycle Infographic” and “Supply Chain Infographic.” Each one qualifies as an individual task that you will focus on and then feel good about crossing off.

Break Big Tasks Into Smaller Steps

Larger tasks can also be broken down into individual steps. This prevents you from losing motivation by looking at an an un-crossed task item for too long, and you’ll feel the progress you’re making with every step you complete.

For example, “Wireframe App” can be broken down into “Design Page Template,” “Arrange Side Panels,” “Map Menu Navigation” and so on. This will help you stay focused and motivated on each stage of your larger task.

Planning Ahead: Motivating for Tomorrow’s To-Do List

What about those tasks that you don’t complete on the first day? Most people have a master to-do list far larger than can be completed in a single day, much less within a single five-task list. No problem. That’s what the future is for. There are two popular methods for motivating yourself to tackle the rest of your to-do list tomorrow and at future dates.

Update Your List Before Bed

First, prepare tomorrow’s to-do list before bed. Whether you use paper, a whiteboard, or a mobile app – write a fresh list to tackle in the morning and go to sleep dreaming about the specific things you will get done. This can help you wake up motivated and already mentally prepared to take your list by storm.

Schedule Future Tasks on Your Calendar

You can also pencil-in to-do tasks for the future. Many people find that booking future to-do lists on future days can help them remember to keep on a larger list of tasks that exceeds a single day of focus. When you see that note in your calendar and remember the enjoyment of checking those boxes, you might even find yourself eager to complete another section of your to-do list tasks.

Optimize Your Productivity and People Management

Optimizing time is an important element of business leadership as well as personal accomplishment. If you are passionate about productivity and hold a position of leadership, you may already know the value of a well-built to-do list and well-designed human capital management (HCM) system like isolved People Cloud.

isolved People Cloud provides an administrative engine for achievement. With isolved, organizations can centralize and optimize essential people processes from hiring and onboarding to scheduling, time tracking, payroll, and full lifecycle support. These large task sets can be easily broken down into smaller to-do lists, both for yourself and for each person on your team.

A strong HCM backbone can facilitate seamless remote and in-office employee workflows while providing leadership with the data-driven insights they need for informed decision-making.

Learn how isolved People Cloud, offered by Platinum Group, can optimize the work environment of your business. The all-in-one system offers in-person and remote onboarding, workforce scheduling, timekeeping, compliance and more.

Boost your people-managing productivity with isolved People Cloud today.

Tags: Organizational Strengths Personal Development Employee Management goal setting

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Julie Miles

Julie Miles

Julie’s passion is to act as a liaison between the Platinum team, their wonderful clients, and the community, striving to tell their stories and make connections.