As an inherently anxious person, to-do lists serve as a way of navigating my nerves, getting all my competing priorities down on paper and structured, so they’re not floating around in my mind. It's not simply about writing down everything that needs to be done, but the trick really lies in balancing and structuring the list.
It took me about a decade of juggling an ambitious academic career and other passions – among which, my business – to hone the skill of making a to-do list that helps boost productivity and diminish anxiety.
I've been asked a LOT about how I have time for all my different projects, and how I get organized to maximize motivation, focus, productivity and life balance.
1. Make more than one list
The bigger picture: First, I make a “goal and priorities” list for a period of 1-2 months. What do I want to work on or achieve in that time, in terms of tasks and milestones? Each weekly to-do list and my daily activities should ultimately bring me closer to these precise goals.
This gives me direction - it keeps me grounded, focused and goal-driven.
I usually write these out on GIANT PINK POST-ITS on a wall in my office, as a giant reminder of what I am striving for.
Tip # 1: Throughout the month, things obviously crop up that I can’t deal with straight away, so I leave some room in a corner of the page for things I have to take care of next month. That gets them out of my head and onto paper, but still gives me some breathing room.
Tip # 2: Given the beauty of unpredictability, I never sketch out more than 2 months at a time.
The zoomed-in picture: Next, I use my 4-quadrant week’s list to create my daily list. If my schedule is already pretty clear for the week (e.g., if several meetings, errands, deliveries, classes are already scheduled), I tend to make a daily list for each weekday in one sitting. Otherwise, I do one day at a time by referring back to the weekly list, based on what is most urgent or what I feel most like working on.
I do this at night before I go to sleep, because knowing what I have to do in the morning reduces my stress.
As you check off your daily items, you also check off your weekly items and see how on track you are by Thursday.
2. Balance your priorities and create quadrants
I generally like to break up my lists into 4 quadrants which are usually:
- Veni Etiam
- Science / other projects
- Around the house / self-care
- Errands / communications
It’s pretty straightforward what goes into what category, and it helps me balance out my priorities as well as how much time I spend at my computer vs. up and around doing other things. Being aware of how much of your time goes into each type of activity is extremely valuable.
You can do this for your weekly list, but organize your daily list chronologically, if that makes more sense to you.
3) Vary the level of difficulty of the day’s tasks
It really helps to put a mix of easy/quick items and more challenging items on the list, to ease into the day and then reward yourself after a task requiring more concentration.
That being said, it’s crucial to break up the more challenging projects into manageable chunks. What can you do in an hour or less? That’s what the task name should be - not a whole project name! Overwhelming items tend to get skipped!
Easy items for me are returning emails, organizing files, updating documents, bookkeeping, tidying up around the house, etc. The more head-consuming items for me are scientific writing, creating blog posts, working on web design and on my Etsy shop, graphic design or any sort of content planning for social media. I make sure to alternate between easy and challenging tasks to keep my motivation up.
4) Make a “to be” list
What I do I want to feel and to be? What did I dislike about my feelings last week? Maybe you want to be more patient, less of a perfectionist, complain less about petty things, be more optimistic.
It helps make me feel more centered and clear-headed to practice this, and I find that good things come my way with less resistance.
5) Make room for adjustments, pauses and check-ins (and yes, sometimes, forgo the list!)
I like to stare out the window, sit on the bus without looking at my phone, or play hide-and-seek with my crazy cat if I’m working from home. I also use these short breaks to check-in with myself about how I’m feeling, and adjust from there.
I am also not afraid of tweaking the list when unexpected events occur. If I feel totally uninspired to write or create, I won’t force myself to get into the zone – I’ll switch it with a task from tomorrow’s list and move on. A few eraser marks or white-out marks are expected on to-do lists!
Lastly, not every day should be carved out. Sometimes, I make a backwards to do list, only writing down items I do in the order I do them! It gives me a great sense of accomplishment and flexibility. It’s also much more relaxing!
On days where you feel your to-do list was totally hijacked by unexpected tasks, it helps to make a list of what you actually did, to override your initial daily list. This chases away anxiety because it demonstrates that you were actually productive, just not the way you expected to be. And that's okay.
Other times (albeit rarely), I make no list at all and just take the day as it comes.
I hope this post gives you some helpful strategies on boosting productivity in an organized and balanced way.
Is there a tip on here you haven’t tried, but would like to? Leave me a comment, I’d love to know.
Share your to-do list posts with me on Instagram and Facebook by tagging me @veni.etiam.photography. You'll receive a coupon for my shop as encouragement!
From my heart to yours!