When you consider the sheer number of technological advancements the 21st century has produced, you'd be forgiven for being somewhat surprised to learn that my most relied-upon productivity tool isn’t say, the iPhone, or even the precious gift of email. It’s definitely not Slack, and it isn’t Dropbox either. No – as brilliant and necessary as all of these inventions are, my secret weapon when it comes to productivity is, drumroll...
The humble list.
I love making lists, and generally have several on the go at any given moment, from smaller day-to-day lists to bigger 'master lists'. I have a list of things I want to achieve by the time I’m 30 (tick tock), as well as a seemingly never-ending list of ‘life admin’ stored on my phone. I’ve even been known to get a bit meta and make a list of all my other various lists, although in hindsight, making a to-do list with ‘consolidate other lists’ on it that one time was probably a bit much.
Part of the reason I rely on lists so much is because of the simple fact that I have a terrible short-term memory. Whether it’s an interesting idea or a bit of admin – if I don’t write something down as soon as I think of it, chances are I’ll forget it forever (or at least until it’s horribly urgent or long overdue, preferably both). But more importantly, I find that making lists keeps me accountable, and allows me to make objective decisions about what I need to do, and when. I'm convinced lists are the key to getting shit done – so here’s some advice on how and why to deploy them most effectively, so you too can experience the life-enhancing properties of a well-structured list.
And for the record, you don't need a list of all your other lists. That was a dumb thing to do.
Part I: The Benefits
CONSERVING MENTAL ENERGY
By far the most significant benefit of using lists in your working life is that they free up crucial thinking space. By spending a few minutes planning your workflow upfront instead of trying to store dozens of tasks in your head, you free up your brain to do the real work of creative thinking the rest of the time.
Breaking down larger goals into the sum of their parts can turn seemingly abstract goals into concrete tasks, which are easier to work through. Lists also help you keep track of your progress – if you find that a particular task on your ‘day-to-day’ list (more on that in Part II) keeps cropping up week after week, it’s probably an indicator of a) something you need to stop dodging and just deal with once and for all, or b) something that’s actually not particularly vital, and probably doesn’t need to be on your task list at all. Keep an eye out for those problem items so you can decide which of those two categories they fall into, and act accordingly.
Let's face it - crossing items off to-do lists is pretty satisfying, and being able to see a visual representation of what you’ve already completed can give you a sense of achievement that helps spur you on.
Part II: Getting Started
There are the two key lists I rely on, structured thus:
1. BIG PICTURE
These are the longer term objectives – career goals and bigger projects, or perhaps skills you want to acquire. Break this list down into four categories:
- >1 month
- 1-3 months
- 3-6 months
- 6 months+
Review it every few weeks to see how you’re getting on, and remind yourself of what’s on the horizon for the next few months.
This one’s for your short-term goals i.e. the more immediately pressing tasks that need to be completed in the days and weeks ahead. At the start of each week, make a list of your goals for that week, breaking them down into individual tasks – the more detailed the better! This stage is something of a brain dump, so just jot down everything that comes to mind, without worrying about its relative importance or difficulty. You might find it helpful to categorise tasks by theme as you write them down, putting them under separate headings (e.g. writing, finances, events etc.).
Then, take two minutes to prioritise, numbering tasks in order of importance/urgency. This is crucial, and means when you’ve finished one task, you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what to do next, helping to eliminate decision fatigue.
Review this list each morning to find out what’s on the agenda for the day.
Finally, whilst I’m happy to digitise most aspects of my life, I’m a firm believer in getting important lists like these down on paper (and here’s a roundup of the best stationery around to help you on that front). The very process of committing your thoughts to paper is often really illuminating, and it means your goals won't get lost in the jumble of draft tweets and Chrome tabs that dominate our digital lives.