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Nothing in my life has challenged my productivity like having my first baby. Overnight, I had ten times as many items on my to do list, no time to complete them, and three hours worth of sleep to run on.
I learned quickly that when you’re a mom, a hastily scribbled to do list on the back of a CVS receipt isn’t going to cut it. We need to become productivity machines to make the most of the limited time and energy that we have.
Ready to actually start getting things done? Let’s figure out why your to do list sucks and how to make it better.
Problem #1: IT’S TOO LONG
Yes, mama, I know you have a million things to do, but putting them all on one giant to do list is completely overwhelming.
When creating your to do list, think realistically about what you can accomplish. Writing down 100 things to do today when you only have time to do 5 means that you’ll end the day feeling bad about all that’s left undone. You’ll also risk missing out on doing the stuff that really needs to get accomplished.
Solution: Ok, so how do you cut 95 items off of your list? Well, first ask yourself if everything on the list truly needs to be done at all. Have you said ‘yes’ to a commitment you really have no desire to do? If so, cut it. Can something on your list be delegated to another person? If so, pass it on.
Finally, look critically at every item that’s left to see if it truly needs to be done right now. If not, it doesn’t need to be on your current list of to dos.
When you’re done editing your list, everything on today’s to-dos should be important and urgent. So what do you do with the items you cut off of today’s list that still need to be taken care of at some point?
This brings me to the next reason your to do list sucks.
Problem #2: YOU ONLY HAVE ONE LIST
Do you have one giant list that includes everything from taking out the trash tonight, to taking the kids to see Santa this weekend, to visiting your family at the beach next summer?
A giant list like this is a recipe for overwhelm and ensures that you’ll be wading through zillions of things that aren’t relevant to what really must get done today.
Solution: Break up your lists into multiple lists several different categories.
I keep more than half a dozen to do lists running at one time.
- Today: this is a really short list with my top priority for the day along with a few more high value tasks that will really help move my life forward
- Tomorrow: much like today’s list, tomorrow’s contains a realistic number of tasks carefully chosen to make the best use of my limited time
- This week: On Sunday nights, I like to sit down to make a list of tasks for the week. Every evening, I transfer a few of these tasks, along with any new things that have come up, to tomorrow’s to do list.
- This month: Keeping a list of things I want to accomplish each month really helps me see the big picture and ensure that my goals are being met.
- Save for Later: If I know I won’t get to something this month, it goes on my Save for Later list so it doesn’t distract me from things that are pressing. I review this list as I’m making the plan for the next month to see if these are things that can be accomplished now.
- To read: I’m constantly finding new books I want to read. Having them hidden on a catch all to do list meant that I never knew what to look for when I was at the library or in the bookstore. Therefore, books got their own list.
- Bucket list: I definitely want to climb Kilimanjaro, learn to drive a manual transmission car, and stomp grapes with my feet, but I don’t need these items cluttering up my regular to dos. I review this list regularly, though, as I’m making my monthly plan.
Having multiple lists ensures that I’m able to get all of the tasks that are making me feel stressed out of my head. On any given day, though, I’m not looking at one hundred things that don’t currently need my attention.
Problem #3: YOU CAN’T TELL WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT
Is everything on your list in completely random order with no sense of what the more important tasks are? When a list is arranged this way, important priorities often get skipped simply because they don’t get seen.
Solution: Make sure that the thing(s) you really must do today stand out on the list. If you’re working with a paper list, you might split the list into ‘must do’ and ‘might do’. You might number your to dos, giving the most important item the number one spot. You might highlight your top three biggest priorities with a highlighter.
If you’re working electronically, your list can easily be cut-and-pasted so that it appears in descending order of importance. I use Trello for my to do list. I’ll put each task on its own card, and I’m able to easily drag my cards to whatever position I need them.
Problem #4: IT HAS PROJECTS ON IT INSTEAD OF ACTIONS
I’m definitely guilty of this one. I’ll put something like, “plan trip to the Dominican Republic” on my regular old to do list. It then sits there for days without any action because it seems too overwhelming to tackle.
Solution: In his excellent book, Getting Things Done, David Allen stresses the importance of making a “Next Action List”. To create this list, you look at any projects you have and write down the very next thing you need to do to move the project forward.
When projects are broken up in this way, progress is simple because your next step is clear. Also, attacking a goal in baby steps like this makes anything seem much easier to accomplish.
These next action steps are what truly belong on your to do list.
Problem #5: THE SAME TASK SITS ON THERE FOREVER
Have you got a task that’s been on your to do list since Barack Obama was president? These little items left hanging can stress us out and make us feel like a failure. If you’ve got these hanging to dos, it’s time to re-evaluate.
Solution: Ask yourself why this particular task isn’t getting done. Maybe you need to break it into smaller tasks, move it to a longer-term list, or delegate it to someone else. Give yourself permission to slash it altogether if it’s something that no longer serves you.
Pro-tip: If, after reflecting on the task you decide that it really does need to get done, do it right when you wake up tomorrow morning to start your day off with an epic win.
Problem #6: YOU KEEP THE SAME LIST FROM ONE DAY TO THE NEXT
Your to do list shouldn’t be some old ratty document from three days ago. While the list on your phone from last week might look less tattered, it’s equally problematic.
Your priorities and responsibilities change every day, and your list should change with you. If you set your to do list up properly, you shouldn’t have a lot of tasks undone at the end of each day. Even if you do, pulling out a reminder of yesterday’s undone things just makes you feel rotten.
Solution: Write a new list for the next day every evening as part of your nighttime routine. Re-evaluate what happened or didn’t happen today. Consider whether or not it’s relevant for tomorrow and if getting it done then is feasible.
Problem #7: IT’S NOT ALL IN ONE PLACE
Have you scribbled notes everywhere? If you’ve got some items written on your phone, some on a list stuck on the fridge, and some on the back of that envelope in your purse, you risk having items fall through the cracks. You also will have a harder time prioritizing what’s important.
Solution: Create ONE to do list in a format that’s easy to carry with you. It might be a list in a paper planner that lives in your purse or a checklist on your cell phone.
I love to use Trello for my to-dos since the app is available on desktop, iOS, and Android. As much as I try to disconnect, one of my electronic devices is usually nearby.
Problem #8: YOU MADE IT TOO VAGUE
I have definitely been guilty of adding items on a list and then having no idea later of what I meant to do. Sometimes, it’s because my handwriting was too sloppy. Other times, though, it’s because I wrote some one-word description I thought I’d understand later.
Solution: Take the time to be clear on your to do list. Write a clear description of what needs done. Add extra details like the actual telephone number you need if you’re planning to make a phone call. Your future self will thank you.
Problem #9: IT’S TREATED AS THE GOSPEL
Sometimes, your to do list needs to be tossed out. Maybe you made an excellent plan for the day and woke to find your kid has the stomach flu. Perhaps today you’d planned to catch up on some schoolwork with the kids, but the weather outside is perfect for a picnic.
Solution: Our situations in life are constantly changing and evolving, so make sure you’re remaining flexible, too. Review your list throughout the day, and make adjustments as necessary. If your to do list seems like it’s not longer serving you, feel free to reschedule a task or cut it out altogether.
Problem #10: IT’S GOT FLUFF TASKS ON IT TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER
Alright, I know I’m not the only one out there who loves checking off that little box when a task is complete. I’ve even been guilty of writing little bits of nonsense on there just so I could cross them off later. This makes the list look overwhelming and distracts me from my true purpose for the day.
Solution: Carefully consider whether or not any task on your list deserves to be there. Strive to not just stay ‘busy’ all day, but to move your life forward. If you’ve got a task that will be accomplished whether you write it down or not, simply do it, and save your valuable list space for something more important.
Problem #11: IT’S WRITTEN AT THE LAST SECOND
Are you writing your to do list after you wake up in the morning and have already started your day? There’s a good chance you’re going to be unprepared for what the day will bring. To do lists written at the last second inevitably lack focus and leave out important items. At the very least, you risk missing out on some productive time in the morning while the kiddos are sleeping.
Solution: If you want to supercharge your productivity, make your to do lists in advance. Daily to dos should be formulated the night before as part of your nighttime routine. There should be a time on your calendar each week to set up a weekly plan and time at the end of each month to lay out the next month’s projects, tasks, and goals.
Problem #12: YOU DON’T ACTUALLY MAKE TIME TO DO IT
Depending on what’s on your list, mama, you might have to get really strategic about how to get your things done.
For example, do you need a large block of quiet, focused time to do a task requiring brainpower? When can you schedule it so that the kids aren’t distracting you? If you need to call to schedule an appointment, do you know the hours that the office is open? I’ve been burned lots of times when I pushed a phone call until the end of the day and found I’d missed my chance.
Solution: As you’re making your list, don’t just write down the task itself. Write down when during the day you plan to tackle it, and how long you estimate it will take.
A well-written to do list can help supercharge your productivity each day. I hope the suggestions included here help you make yours great.