Most people would admit to having a complicated relationship with their to-do list. On one hand, we all relish the near-intoxicating satisfaction of finally crossing off each lingering, nagging item when the time comes. But more often, the standard to-do list – an unstructured visualization of our pending responsibilities – only helps us get in our own way by provoking anxiety and stress.

Ironically, the less we stress, the more equipped we are to get things done faster, and making fewer mistakes in the process. So if a mere glance at your to-do list inspires fear and anguish, it’s probably time to take a new approach.

Productivity experts have developed a number of strategies that are proven to optimize the to-do list – and crucially, without overwhelming. Here are 5 simple ways to optimize your to-do list that you might want to give a try.

The A/B Schedule

The A/B schedule concept is also referred to as “context switching.” It involves grouping tasks or projects that require employing a particular skill set or certain practical circumstances to complete and then assigning them to a specific day of the week or large block of time. Essentially you will have two or more to-do lists, which become more manageable when you don’t have to waste time and energy switching between attending to different kinds of work (psychologists have proven that multitasking and task “juggling” comes with considerable time loss consequences). Possible groupings: administrative vs. client-side work, strategy vs. execution, creative time vs. communication, and logistics.

In order for this approach to work its best, you might need to be in a position where you can effectively establish boundaries with the people you work with. That’s not always realistic for everyone, but if you can identify specific hours to block it’s a start.

Urgency vs. Importance Matrix (a.k.a. Eisenhower’s Principle)

People with great time management skills recognize which new tasks are important and which are urgent, and react accordingly. By spending too much time putting out fires – while urgent, usually associated with someone else’s objectives – we risk losing sight of our own goals. Apply these labels (even if only mentally, at the very least) to the items on your to-do list to determine what requires your focus, and weed out the distractions keeping you from more important work.

You’ll know something needs your immediate attention if it is both urgent and important. Important but not urgent comes next, followed by urgent but of lesser importance. Not important or urgent? Those would be distractions that can be tabled until you have a surplus of time to fill. Following this method, you should be able to attend to critical matters while still moving forward important, long-term goals.

Critical, Hot, Sooner, Later

Productivity expert and executive coach Ellen Faye takes the “urgent vs. important” framework one step further, advising her pupils to categorize tasks into categories for Critical, Hot, Sooner and Later. Critical tasks are those which must be attended to immediately. Hot denotes something that needs doing in the next two to three days. Items marked Sooner are promoted once items already in the Critical/Hot categories have been completed. Later are things that need doing, but not in the immediate future.

If anything stays on your task list for too long, Faye recommends you stop and evaluate whether you can get away without doing it and retire it from the list altogether.

The 1-3-5 Rule

Each day, set out to accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. This productivity strategy ensures you are covering a lot of ground so that you can make progress on more immersive work without sacrificing administrative and everyday tasks, which, when piled up over time, can easily overwhelm.

Some tips for using this strategy effectively: Outline all that you want to accomplish at the beginning of each week and categorize each item by task size. It helps to get your “one big thing” over with before lunch. Don’t schedule any new tasks that come up until you’ve completed your daily 1-3-5.

Timeboxing (Or, the Anti-To-Do List)

Would our round-up of to-do list strategies be complete without a contrarian attack on the very concept of the to-do list itself? For balance, of course. Daniel Markovitz’s Timeboxing philosophy eschews the traditional list altogether in favor of mapping out everything that needs to be accomplished on your (digital) calendar.

Rather than compiling an ever-growing list of things that need getting around to (a habit that inevitably leads to us choosing smaller, inconsequential tasks when the opportunity arises, he says), you allocate everything you know you need to do to a corresponding chunk of time in your calendar as you become aware of it. This ultimately paints a more realistic picture of what we are committed to achieving, and conveniently eliminates what he calls “the paradox of choice”. He likens this approach to creating a “production plan” for your work.

To-do lists grow and expand without restraint as we add new things to them. It’s easy to overestimate how much time we will have and how much can be accomplished. With Timeboxing, you can more practically assess whether your schedule can accommodate new projects or work that may come up.

General To-Do List Tips

No matter which approach to optimizing your to-do list you choose to implement, a few simple habits are evergreen:

  • Keep items concrete and actionable
  • Break intimidating tasks down into manageable parts
  • Delegate where appropriate
  • Start with the thing you dread
  • Allow yourself the satisfaction of penciling in and crossing off the little things you would have done anyway – the dopamine-inducing power of low-stakes productivity is worth embracing

The worst thing you can do when it comes to getting through a growing to-do list is stress out about it. There is nothing more counterproductive to your own productivity than stress without a strategy. Productivity is a mental game. The best thing you can do to overcome it is to give yourself a system that’s designed to alleviate the burden of “where do I even begin.” So, take a deep breath, and trust in the process – whichever one it is that you choose.


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