8 steps to keeping a killer to-do list and getting shit done

8 steps to keeping a killer to-do list and getting shit doneListiness is next to Godliness — for me, making and executing a long list is nothing short of a religious experience. Although I’ve tirelessly kept a paper planner since the sixth grade to manage my fucked-up life, I only recently entrusted my iPhone to help me organize my increasingly hectic schedule. Turns out smart phones are pretty handy — using only a $1 app, I remind myself of daily tasks and important dates, work toward long-term goals and aspirations, and keep my spending in check.

But keeping an amazing list is for naught if you don’t first establish some good organizational habits. So stop downloading unwieldy productivity tools, and first get a handle on how to segment your life into bite-sized chunks that you can actually keep track of and accomplish.

Here are 8 steps to making and keeping a to-do list that does more than collect dust.

8. Don’t kid yourself

I know you had the best of intentions when you jotted down a recurring task to hit the gym six days a week, but being unrealistic about your time, resources, and motivation isn’t doing you any favors. Just because you enter it into your list, doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. And finding yourself skipping your workout will only trip you up and make you feel like shit about what you don’t do. So when it comes to your list, only include things you actually plan to accomplish.

7. Jot down everything: big and small, details and all

The objective of a to-do list is to put all those tasks, events, and reminders floating around in your head down on paper so you can free up your mind to focus on the present. So record it all, every “shit, I can’t forget to…” when it comes to mind. Items for your list could range from “set the DVR to record Girls,” to “write a novel.” The right list can break down large goals into small action items, but more on that later. Jot down your weekly staff meeting, your trip to the ATM, and your date night with the girls — it will prevent you from spacing the details, as well as satisfy your inner-achiever to cross some items off. For events, include the address, duration, relevant contact info, and any other details in the notes field of your planner. Which brings us to tools.

6. Select a simpler app

In your initial excitement to get organized, it may be tempting to download the most comprehensive calendar app in the iTunes store. But resist that temptation: those apps have more features than you’ll need. Trust me. Instead, try TaskPro, for only a dollar. Don’t let its low rating and bad reviews dissuade you. This little gem of an application has a clean interface, while offering most of the features you’ll actually use.

5. Build your list

This part will take time. I suggest setting aside at least an hour to begin your list. Have all your calendars at the ready, and start thinking about any commitments or regular activities you might schedule. Then get to listing. Start by getting a few smaller tasks on paper, like the items you plan to accomplish that week. From there, you can start to envision groups/tags to separate your tasks (again, more on that later).  Use the recurring events feature to remind yourself to take out the recycling or pay the insurance bill, any task or event that repeats itself on a consistent basis. And turn on alerts to let your phone remind you when you need an extra nudge. Although this part takes the longest, and seems the most daunting, I can promise that once you open the spigot, your brain will start pouring its contents at the speed of a busted water mane. Not literally. That would be gross.

4. Divide and conquer

I talked earlier about separating your list using custom tags. Tags will help you to organize your list in any number of ways. Your list should fit your life, and so should your tags. To help you get started, I’ll share my tags and what items fit under each.

To-do: tasks, errands, and reminders (e.g. schedule haircut, work out, Target). If the task/event doesn’t have a home in any other tags, it goes under this one.

Work: meetings, major deadlines, recurring tasks (e.g. communications status meeting, update status report, write press release). You may choose to include all your work-related to-dos and deadlines in TaskPro, but my team uses a robust project management tool that keeps my work tasks covered. If at all possible, don’t duplicate efforts. If you have a system of organizing stuff at work that works for you, stick with it.

School: assignment due dates, exam dates and class meeting times. Similar to work, I enter homework and reading that’s due for class using a project management tool through work, and use my list only for major deadlines.

Personal: social engagements or other fun events. This tag is reserved for stuff I want to do, not stuff I have to do (e.g. date night, Andrea’s birthday party, Walking Dead premiere, etc.). Just because you won’t suffer through it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enter it in your calendar. Doing so will lessen the chances of forgetting plans with friends.

Blog: anything and everything I need to get done for my blog (write post, find stock image, publish post). Because I tend to skip these tasks if I’ve had a long day, I schedule the tasks as recurring, so the blog is always on my radar.

Dinner: meals for the week. Sometimes I need to remind myself what I had planned to make for dinner when I bought that bok choy at the grocery store. Plus having that final item on my list for the day motivates me to cook when I’d rather grab take-out. I know, I’m crazy.

90 days: top-level goals, projects and shopping. This tag does much of the heavy lifting in my list. Planning my goals and projects over three month periods gives me enough time to tackle complicated projects, while limiting the time I have to procrastinate. I use this list to make progress toward larger goals as well as to keep impulse spending in check. Within my “90 days” tag, I have three sublists, that if you use, will change your life: “to-buy,” “to keep in mind,” and “to-do.”

In “to-buy,” I write down every single solitary item I need to purchase, from nine volt batteries, to a new fitted blazer, to a dining room table and chairs. Some of these items will get crossed off quickly during regular errands, while others will sit on your list for a year. But keeping a running list of stuff you need/want will remind you to pick up smaller items, curb your impulse buys, and ensure you only purchase things that will be useful. Make it a rule that you cannot buy any item that isn’t already on the list, and that you must delay big purchases at least one week. I know, scary, huh?

In “to keep in mind,” I get a little mushy. I write myself a few reminders about ways I can improve. Right now, that list reads: Shut up and listen, make time for friends, and take it slow. I use this list to keep my less-than-desirable tendencies in check, and to form better habits.

In “to-do” (not the same as tasks in the “to-do” tag), I list every large goal I want to accomplish over the next 90 days. These are items that are either too large/complex to schedule right away, or tasks that require more legwork at some point in the future. In this sublist, you might jot down “paint bathroom,” or “apply to grad school.” Writing down these larger tasks will boost your resolve to move forward. But now that you’ve declared your intention to do it, how do you get it done?

3. Break down larger goals

Stare down that big bad 90 days list, and choose one item. Then decide on the first three steps along the path to completing it. Finally, schedule those steps in your general to-do list. Perhaps you ‘re finally going to paint the bathroom. Firs you’ll need to select a paint color, so enter a to-do to browse Pinterest for inspiration. Next, enter your chosen paint color and any other necessary painting materials into the “to-buy” section. Then carve out a time to stop by Home Depot, and pick up the items on the list. Oh, and while you’re at the hardware store, consult your “to-buy” list and grab those nine volt batteries that you keep forgetting. Schedule a time to get to painting, and triumphantly cross “paint the bathroom” off your 90 days list. Are you blissful about your list yet? Just wait until you check off that first big goal. And then the second.

Re-evaluate your “90-days” list every three months, then reschedule it three months out. Repeat.

2. Stalk your list

Look at that huge fucking list every single day. Four times a day. Every hour! Keeping a list will only work for you if you get in the habit of opening the app, and checking items off, every day. I typically have 4-8 items on my list each day, but your load will vary based on how hectic your life is.

Oh, and no cheating! If you don’t finish a task, reschedule it for a time when you will.

1. Tweak accordingly

After maintaining a list for a few weeks, make changes as needed. Perhaps you’ll start including work tasks in your list, or leaving off personal events.

I’m dying to know how your list looks. Tweet me your results or leave them in the comments.

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