With an array of colours, underscores, asterisks and scribbles, to-do lists have always been (and continue to be) a key tool in our arsenal for organising and managing workloads. To-do lists act as both compass and map, guiding us through busy days and weeks of appointments, administration, reporting and so on. Many of us will rely heavily or even solely on our to-do lists to govern what we do and when: when you think about it, we place a significant amount of trust in our lists getting us to where we want to be by the end of each working day. 

As with any tool, it’s crucial to periodically check if it’s still working. It would be frivolous for a hiker to embark on a trek without a working compass and up-to-date map – they’re unlikely to arrive at their desired destination, and if they did, they’d have spent far more time and effort than was necessary to get there. Equally, a to-do list that lacks or has lost its clarity and efficacy risks us spending more time and effort than we can afford. And if we don’t get to where we need to be by the end of the day, week or month, the absence of accomplishment can feed feelings of distress, overwhelm, and fatigue. So here is a gentle prompt to check whether your to-do list is working for you or against you in achieving your goals.

A well-constructed list will pay dividends when it comes to time and task management. Here are some things to consider when reviewing your physical or virtual to-do list:

Are the tasks on your to do list clear; do they tell you what specifically needs done as well as how and when?

If you’re someone who uses key words or short bullet points, you may want to consider adding a proportionate amount of detail. Using a verb to support each item or action required e.g., compose email, review X information, contact Y, discuss Z is also advantageous.

Why is this important? If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed or distressed on any given day, you may not be thinking clearly but a clear and easy to understand to-do list can do the thinking (and navigating) for you.

Is each item on your list an actionable step or the end goal?

Break down bigger tasks or end goals into smaller steps to give you true clarity and direction. For example, instead of ‘complete McLeod’s case’ break it down to ‘review I&E’, ‘contact McLeod to verify details’, ‘contact creditor’, ‘compose email’, ‘update CRM’ etc.

Why is this important? If you feel distressed or overwhelmed and each item on your list is just the end goal, you may not know where to start which can lead to that all too familiar ‘can’t see the woods for the trees’ feeling which risks procrastination. Having smaller steps on your list means you are more likely to tick things off quicker which will feed feelings of accomplishment which in turn fuel motivation.

Does each item have a priority level assigned and an indication of the amount of time needed to complete the task?

Knowing roughly how long a task will take and what the priority level is, are perhaps the most useful details you can add to your to-do list. If you’re not sure how much time you’ll need to spend on an item/task, take a note of how long you’ve spent on it so far. If you don’t complete the task and it rolls over to the next day’s to-do list, you’ll have a better idea of how much time to allocate to it and get a better idea of what priority to give it.

Why is this important? You may be firefighting on a daily basis; multi-tasking to no end and juggling competing priorities. If your list has time and priority details on it, you’ll be better equipped to manage your workload and determine how much more (or extra) work you can take on without hindering progress on your existing to-dos.

Are there more than ten items on your list?

Smaller lists feel, and therefore are, more achievable. Set yourself up for success by reducing your active to-do list to ten items or less.

Why is this important? If your list is as long as your arm, simply looking at it can immediately feel demoralising and feed feelings of defeat. Whereas shorter lists are manageable and motivational. If you complete a task that wasn’t on your list, add it to your list and tick it off to demonstrate your achievements and feed feelings of accomplishment.

With a quick internet search, you’ll find a host of list making methods and techniques. One that we consider in our wellbeing workshops is the ‘1-3-5’ rule to list making. You’ll note 1+3+5 = 9, leaving one item short of the suggested ten to have on your list – make that item a self-care task like taking a break, getting lunch, chatting with a colleague; anything that will give you some respite and some well-deserved time to recharge. Whether you try something new or refine your own approach to list making, giving your to-do list a MOT is most certainly worth it, especially if you place a high importance on your to-do list as your guide.

You’re welcome to join our ‘Priorities and Focus’ mini wellbeing workshops which runs regularly throughout the year. This one-hour virtual session provides the time and space to consider your to-do list and introduces prioritisation and time management methods to help you organise and manage workloads. Click here to find and book your free spot on an upcoming workshop.