How to Master your To-Do List and Get Things Done


Whether you’re in school, working, or job hunting, balance is something everybody strives for.

But, as anyone who’s spent long hours toiling away at a deadline can tell you, it can be a challenge to achieve. Many people use to-do lists to help manage time and remember tasks and responsibilities. That’s because checking off accomplished action items out of a list of obligations and errands, can provide a sense of sweet gratification. However, it can just as easily lead to the not-so-great feeling of never being done.

If your to-do list is stressing you out, here are some tips to streamline your tasks and actually get things done.

Cut down

People can get paralyzed by choice overload, says psycho-economist Sheena Lyengar, and to-do lists can very easily cause this problem. There are hundreds of productivity apps available for a variety of platforms, all promising to make your life easier. However, using too many is counterproductive as consulting multiple lists on your phone, laptop, and notebook only adds to your workload.

Simplify your methods.

  1. Instead of different to-do lists in different places, have a central list that you can refer to and revise regularly.
  2. Make sure to delete, cross off, or scrap completed tasks/lists!
  3. Keeping them around will clutter your workspace, digital or otherwise. Remember: the shorter your to-do lists get, the more accomplished you will feel.

Prioritize and categorize

In web development, creating well thought out categories is fundamental for search engine optimization. Efficient distribution of content not only makes your site look organized, it also enhances the user experience.

To manage your to-do list, think like a programmer! Make categories within your central list, and distinguish between long-term and short-term goals. For example, ‘write a novel’ and ‘send report to Susan by 3pm, Thursday’ are two very different items that belong in separate categories. Don’t overwhelm yourself by piling unrelated tasks into a monster list.

Be clear

It sounds obvious but you need to make sure your action items are actionable. Remember that these prompts are for you. For example, items like ‘get birthday gift for mom’ or ‘apply for job’ are fine titles at first, but once you’ve decided what to get mom or which job to apply for (and what the job application entails: CV or resume? Cover letter or portfolio?), update your list and implement your plan.

Break it down

Divide larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. For example, instead of saying “write essay,” break it down into several tasks like “choose topic,” “prepare outline,” and “find sources.”

Sometimes urgency is just a feeling

Unfinished tasks and the various feelings of inadequacy and internal nagging that come with them tend to hover over us day and night, affecting our overall productivity. This is called the Zeigarnik effect. The reason we have to-do lists in the first place is to help quiet these negative thoughts, but they are only truly effective when we learn to let go. Reframe your way of thinking. If you keep worrying about what hasn’t been done, it will only get in the way of things actually getting done.

Be flexible

Creating a schedule with strict deadlines can help you complete your tasks in a timely fashion. However, sometimes your initial plans are too ambitious, or things happen that are outside of your control. In these circumstances, it’s okay to revise your initial timeline. Be honest with yourself about what you can do and have time for.

By Carmel is Canada’s leading job board and online career resource for college and university students and recent graduates.

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