I have had many bosses by now. Some have been good and inspiring while some have pretty much made me resolve to look at other paths of revenue rather than a corporate job. However, there was one who was scary yet inspiring and left me with a lot of impressionable moments. I still remember her admonishing me for coming to a meeting without a notebook to jot down notes. One of the times I also learnt from her though was the time that she would march up to me, and demand to see my to-do list just to ensure I had made one. That being my first job, some learnings got imbibed in me for life.
Before my first job, I used to take pride in the fact that I was an impulsive free spirit, or so I liked to imagine myself. An impulsive free spirit could obviously not be bogged down by the shackles of a to-do list. However, after the fore mentioned encounters and through most of my professional life, I have come to recognize just how important and surprisingly liberating a daily to-do list actually is.
Benefits of a daily to-do list
A to-do list is a process with polarizing views – while you have people like the current me who swear by it, there will be enough people like the erstwhile me who wouldn’t be seen anywhere close to it. However, I am hoping to swing the latter category people people to swearing for it by presenting the following 7 benefits:
Brings structure to the day
There are two ways to go about one’s day – either be at sea and just wing it with whatever comes or go about with a list of things to be done. I have realized that my peace of mind is higher when I have a plan rather than swimming around accomplishing anything thrown at my direction. Having a to-do list is like having GPS to reach a destination rather than walking down a road not knowing your destination but just setting on paths shouted out by onlookers.
A sense of accomplishment
I list down my tasks for any day in my daily to-do list. Any time something gets down, I strike it off. It’s probably just a minor psychological benefit but personally, I feel immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment with that striking off. On days when anything else might not go right, you might still have a few strikeouts to tell you it was not truly a wash out.
Less to hold in the head
Even if we choose not to write down a daily to-do list, mentally we often keep mulling about the tasks that need to be looked into or closed. For me a to-do list acts almost like the pensieve in Harry Potter. For the uninitiated, pensieve is a fabulous device in Albus Dumbledore’s office, using which he can extract his memories and anyone can view them as though they are experiencing it. While somewhat different, a daily to-do list help you extract the tasks floating in your head to find another more concrete place, with less remaining up there.
Remember Sheldon in Big Bang Theory who has a knack of doing things a certain way and cannot bear the idea of tasks remaining incomplete? Take a look at his obsession for yourself in this video clip. While he might be the epitome of zeigarnik effect, the impact is for real. As discovered by Lithuanian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, waiters remembered even complex orders till the time they were incomplete while failing to recall any detail once an order had been delivered. Probing further, she was able to conclude that our brain focusses much more on incomplete tasks. Incomplete tasks have a way of popping up in our head at unexpected times or to continue brewing in your sub conscious, compounding and leading to anxiety. A daily to-do list helps on cutting down that anxiety.
When you list down your to-do list, it gives you a one view of all that you have on your plate. You could go about doing those tasks and prioritizing in two ways. You could either choose to start with the easy ones so as to get the satisfaction of striking out some of the tasks on your list. Or as Brian Tracy recommends, you could choose to Eat That Frog first by tackling a big or tiresome task first to give a sense of accomplishment making it easier to go about smaller tasks after that.
Better time management
In my experience, keeping daily to-do lists has helped me be better with my time. There was a time when every Monday I would look back and wonder what did I do over the weekend. Gradually, I gave up on my hang up of not keeping a to-do list for my personal life. I realized if something could be beneficial in my professional life, it could very well help in my personal life too. As I started organizing things in my personal life and keeping a list, be it putting clothes into the washing machine, organizing pins on Tailwind or ordering groceries, I started getting far more done in the same time over a weekend.
Breaks goals into action points
Most of us set ambitious goals for ourselves. These could be over different periods, be it a month, quarter or a year. However, while goals are the result, the tasks that go into channeling the effort towards the goal have a higher probability of getting done when they find their way on a to-do list.
Some tips on making a to-do list
While I am no productivity expert, I have benefitted hugely from keeping daily to-do lists. From my experience, I thought of listing a few tips on how you could make the practice work even better for you.
Mix it up
I have tried keeping two to-do lists with a work list on one page and a personal list on the last page of the diary. Now I just prefer to have one consolidated to-do list that has it all – fun stuff, tough stuff as well as the done stuff. So researching for a holiday often finds it’s way to the same list as finishing off a presentation and the drag of this kind of a task is brightened up by anticipation of looking forward to arm chair travelling.
To-do lists can often be clouded or muddled by blanket macro level tasks. Your daily to-do list is a place to chunk down lofty goals into doable action points. So even researching for holiday could be really chunked down to “book hotel for Kerala”. Being specific in the list will mean you don’t have to second guess every time you see that item in your to-do list.
How many times have you tried to do something and then instantly taken on too much on your plate and given it up altogether? That is a real risk while starting with a habit of daily to-do lists too. In the initial enthusiasm, we can often try to put in unrealistic crazy ass tasks on the list. Resist the temptation and start slow. With gradual successes, feel free to build it up to a comfortable level.
Have limited tasks
Putting too many things on the list is going to lead to scattering of focus and attention in all directions. That’s probably the origin of the term scatterbrain! Ideally, keep up to five really important,
Go easy on yourself
Know that it is ok to not be able to accomplish everything on your to-do list every day. One of my practices every morning is to flip back, look at the previous day’s list and carry forward what I might not have closed. In some ways, it’s like a running counter continuing over time.
Daily to-do lists are now a habitual part of my life and rarely does a day go without it. What about you? Do you make daily to-do lists and strike off your accomplishments? Do you, like me, use pen and paper or do you prefer an app? Let me know in the comments