Creating a workable, fun, purposeful action plan might not be as simple as it seems. I can’t recall how many times I attempted to create to-do items and finally abandoned them without ever looking back because it just felt too inflexible, rigid, robotic in some sense. I’ve tried creating my own hand-written calendar, keeping my own journal, recording tasks on Google Calendar, Evernote, Google Keep, Sticky Notes, and everything that I have come across and read about. I misunderstood that medium is the main factor determining effectiveness of completing items on a to-do list. I felt very ambitious and motivated when I created a to-do list but throughout the day my level of energy changed unpredictably, new events and emergencies came up, and my emotions fluctuated. Hence it seemed impossible to me to discipline myself to follow the original plan I have set out for the day. As a result, I couldn’t really quite resonate with people who could always have a to-do list and are extremely focused on pursuing their own goals. I survived college by planning out my days and weeks in my head. I was okay but I knew that there were a lot of opportunities that I missed and there were some days I just woke up feeling directionless and unproductive because I lacked a sense of guidance. Hence, one of the goals I have set for myself post-college was to learn how to create proper, fun, and workable action plan for the day that could give me guidance and focus to achieve more.

Later, I realized that beyond just writing down a few words to describe what tasks I need to accomplish throughout the day, phrasing my action items, setting my own attitude, and adding some extra elements to my to-do list are also fundamentally important in creating a successful, realizable to-do list.

Here is what has worked for me:

  1. Personalize daily to-do items based on behaviors, habits, personal preferences. Be as specific as possible. First, define a specific, larger goal. Then, break it down into small, quantifiable actions. Next, think about what personalized behaviors on a day to day basis are needed to accomplish these small actions. Potentially consider adding an estimated time duration to each behavior to nudge yourself that this task wouldn’t be as daunting and time-consuming. Think about which location, where, when you can focus your energy and maximize your attention in completing the task. Arrange the items on the to-do lists based on order you would complete them. The to-do items should consist of personalized behaviors rather a list of tasks.

For example, instead of writing a generic, vague list like below:

  1. housing form
  2. read books
  3. write blogs

Change these tasks to smaller, quantifiable (if applicable) actions, and translate them into personalized behaviors. An edited list would look like:

  1. Print, complete, scan housing form, send to Laura ([email protected]) (30 min)
  2. Read “Lean Startup”, “Perennial Seller” + others related to startup, marketing on shelves at Harvard Book Store. Take notes on Dropbox Paper (4 hrs)
  3. Go to caffé Nero. Write 1 blog post (potential topics: outfits, procrastination, time) (2 hrs)

2. Make sure the list is memorable, clean, and accessible in memory. I have a habit of planning out my days or even weeks in my head and hence one of the factors why I abandoned to-do lists before was because it was too long and overwhelming and hence not readily accessible in my head. I would have to open Google Calendar, Evernote, and other apps on my phone or laptop, which is a bit inconvenient. I don’t like holding my phone when I walk around and I would have to find Internet to access to materials online through my laptop. Taking into consideration this personal habit of desiring something simple, easy to remember, and digestible by memory, I always make sure my to-do list is precise and not overwhelmingly detailed. I would remember about 3–5 tasks by memory and if needed I will check back in later once the first 3–5 tasks are finished.

3. Expect the un-expected. Things come up all the time, especially for someone like me who can get excited by little shops on the street, feel in the mood to change plans a bit, and like pondering about random ideas spontaneously. This is why I usually don’t put specific time down to when I would complete the task and am a bit more flexible in changing the order of the task depending on my mood at the moment. It’s also important to think of the alternative, back up plan when something unexpected happens to have in the back of my head. For example, if I have something come up in the morning and can’t complete task #1 at the moment as planned, then I would think ahead of time when is the next block of time available in my day to complete the task. This will ensure that I will increase the chance I will actually complete the task that day.

4. Add motivational quotes and big goals to the top of my to-do list. I usually write a personal statement to remind myself of why these small daily actions matter to me to keep myself in touch with a purpose or goal that I care about. Including this on the top of my everyday to-do list provides a little boost of motivation and keeps me thinking about and modifying my own goals as well in case situations and my personal perspectives change. Some of the quotes that have stuck with me are those that have challenged my existing beliefs or awaken me to think about what I might have forgotten. A quote that is relevant to my personal goal right now is something a friend has recently mentioned that made me think a lot and since I have used it as a motivation for my personal goals this summer: “Don’t be yourself, be who you want to be. Overcome your own fear. One at a time.” I used this quote as a guidance to create my goals this summer — to do more of what makes me feel uncomfortable to become a more flexible, adaptable, and independent adult.

5. Make to-do list more fun and exciting. Besides the main tasks on to-do list, I also like to add a few additional items that I would like to also do if I have additional free time or don’t feel like working on any of the task at the moment. I would add some fun items, interesting events, and other things to research and read more about. These can be “check out Emerald Necklace,” “try bagels at Pavement coffeehouse,” or “look up tote bag design ideas.”

Having a to-do list primarily provides me with a sense of guidance and motivation, especially in times when I feel a bit lost, when I feel like maybe I need more self-discipline, or when I notice that I keep missing deadlines or forgetting to check out things I have thought of doing. It also feels rewarding for me to track my personal progress and remind myself of the larger goals and purpose that I’m working towards that might seem elusive in every day actions.

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