Whether you look at “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change“, “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?“, or any plan for success, you will find lists involved. Task lists are linked to successful endeavors because goals require measurement. We can not determine success or failure if we don’t have a metric that tells us the result of an action. For example. how can you know if you win or lose a game when you don’t keep score?
Task Lists are Hard
A to-do list can be a tool for procrastination as much as it can be for productivity. For some people, a list is paralyzing because there are several choices presented and the tasks all seem to big or time consuming. Task list also require some control of one’s time. A task list is useless when the day is filled with interruptions. The list just becomes an enumeration of things that did not get done that day. Of course, there is also the time requirement to make a list. This leads to a well-known joke of putting the “make a list” task on your list so you can at least get that done.
Task Lists are Simple
On the other hand, tasks list are very simple. At some point, everyone thinks a little bit about what they are going to do. That is a mental task list so why not put the steps on paper? There are two keys to building a useful task list. Build in some sort of priority ordering and define the items in a way that makes them very achievable.
If a task seems too big and scary then break it into smaller tasks. This needs to be done anyway, so plan for the steps to complete the task. For example, I need to change out the air filters on our heating vents. That task can be simplified to purchase the filters and replace the current ones. Those two tasks can be done days or weeks apart. I can even combine picking up filters with another shopping task.
Prioritize your tasks. Make sure the things you have to do are at the top of the list and do not panic if you end a day with some tasks undone. This is one of those “take a breath” moments. The purpose of the list is to help you remember what you want to do, not to cause depression when there are incomplete tasks remaining.
We All Make Lists
The habit of creating a task list is a great step towards success. Why not teach it at an early age? Oh wait, we do. Teachers provide a syllabus for their classes even at the earliest grade school levels. The teachers then have the students use that plan to build a schedule each week of homework and study tasks.
Every New Year many of us make a great list for our plans for the upcoming year. These resolutions may be the source of negative feelings for those that dislike lists. However, a resolution list is not what you should think of when making your task list. Think more along the lines of a simple checklist or recipe. The steps have an order of completion, and order is the goal, not artificial time limits.
Define Your Success
When a day ends with items still to be done, that is ok, there is always tomorrow. In fact, if a task keeps hanging around on a task list (eg. replace the air filters) then feel free to remove it on a given day or entirely from the list. The best list makers will push themselves every day while still advancing towards their goals on a steady basis. Learn to build a list that you complete rather than worry about tasks you can not seem to get off your list.
If using a list still seems too big and scary then check out “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.” It is a great read and can be eye-opening in the examples it provides for success linked to using checklists. A checklist is not a daily or weekly task list of course, but it is a great starting point. Once you get into the rhythm of creating lists they will become natural and help get your life organized. It works for the successful people in the world, so why not join their ranks?
Creating a Habit
Accountability is a great way to build or break a habit. For a task list, create accountability with daily questions. Start by asking the question “what did you get done today?” This daily review is a way to create a task list after the fact. If you knew how your day was going to unfold, then you could make a perfect task list. Listen to the answers and use those to inform the same question in successive days. A pattern will likely become apparent so you can help them build tasks into their daily activities.
We all have recurring tasks, and those should be items on our daily list. As an example, for students, homework is a likely task on any given day. When you ask the question “did you get your homework done?” this will instill a desire to get that task done before they are asked about it. The homework query can grow to other duties like cleaning, hygiene, and school activities.
Once these tasks become habitual in some way, then you can change to asking a question at the start of the day “what are you doing today?” The answer is a mental task list, and you can adjust it by suggesting activities like “and are you going to take out the garbage?” The step from mental to physical tasks lists is a minor one. Thus, creating the habit of spending a little time thinking about your day before you start it in earnest can evolve into great list creation skills. Start simple and start today. Create a short list of tasks to do tomorrow and see how you do. Whatever the result, repeat this activity each day until it becomes a part of your DNA.