To-do lists are popular and effective, but there’s a good chance you’re making yourself less productive.

To-do list is a time-honored system. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: make a list of what needs to be done and in an order of importance, do them, and then, one-by-one, cross them out. When executed well, to-do lists yield pretty impressive results.

Millions of people rely on them to get work done. They help us to prioritize our actions. And they give us a structure to get things done.

Your brain loves ordered tasks. Studies have shown that people perform better when they have written down what they need to do.

“Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective” notes professors Baumeister and Masicampo.

Writing your tasks, goals, and things to do provides clarity. It helps you structure your life in a more manageable way.

For many of us, a productive life is based on a system of listing achievable goals and doing everything we can to achieve them.

But that system has a major flaw.

To-do lists don’t account for time

Time plays a major part in getting stuff done.

Time is the raw material of productivity. Time, not money, is your most valuable asset. Invest it carefully.

To-do lists don’t show how long a task will take to complete. It’s easy to tackle the simple tasks and leave important but the time-consuming projects undone.

Tackling your lists of things to do without deadlines is an ineffective way to work.

You also likely to choose the short and easy tasks almost without fail. Tasks that take less than five minutes to do, leaving big, important projects untouched.

Most items on to-do lists are never done because you keep adding to them without any accountability system to help you complete them.

According to the Zeigarnik effect, people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

This effect, in essence, means that uncompleted tasks on your to-do list will stay on your mind until you finish them.

All those undone items can lead to stress and insomnia.

This can only lead to an overwhelming feeling that makes it difficult to fully immerse yourself in any task.

Define what your ideal day would actually look like

Jason Womack, author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More, recommends a different approach to getting organized and getting things done.

He suggests you write an “Ideal Day” scenario for yourself to make the most of each day. Knowing what “ideal” means to you gives you a goal to work toward, he says.

How do you want to spend your day? What tasks HAVE to be done today? What time of day can you do your best work?

With that scenario in mind, you can then divide the day into sections and match to-do list activities to different times.

Those moments of clarity can make a huge difference in how you use your to-do list and get both urgent and important work done without wasting time.

Schedule everything on your calendar

Put everything on your calendar and then work and live by that calendar. It also enables you to better determine which projects to take on and whether you should be saying yes to more tasks in any given week.

Adding dates, and or due time to your list — especially to your most important tasks can help you accomplish them at specific times of the day.

Add an extra column to your list and include your estimation of how long you think the task will take, and be realistic!

To make to-do lists work best for you, put your calendar to good use. Many people schedule the day or week, rather than arranging it into to-dos without deadlines, accomplishes a couple of things.

Schedules also employ a sense of urgency that you don’t get with a priority-based structure.

Add estimations to each task

You don’t merely need to know what has to be done, but how long it will take as well in order to plan effectively.

It’s better to say, “I only have 40 minutes to do this task today”, rather than arranging your tasks in order of importance without a specific timeline.

Tasks need a little more detail to make to-do lists work effectively for you.

Adding those details (time and how long tasks will take to complete) — and then looking at them before starting a day’s work — might take more time, but it will help set expectations and get work done right.

Try scheduling out every single minute of the day from 8am to 5pm tomorrow, if you can. Plan breaks on purpose.

Schedule emails, social media or notifications. You will see a drastic improvement in focus, self-awareness and how you use your time throughout the day.

Break big project into small tasks, list each tasks and assign timelines to every single one of those tasks

If your to-do list isn’t clear, your tasks probably won’t get done — and they certainly won’t be prioritised. They will only lead to more stress.

Take a few minutes to think through that big project. What are its component parts? What will be the real effort and time required? Write it down. Then start working on the component parts.

When the overwhelming work becomes something small you can focus on, your focused-brain can hone in on exactly what you need to do, single-task and crush long-term goals.

Before you go…

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