4 Ways to Improve Your To-Do Lists

Last Updated Sep 5, 2008 10:31 AM EDT

331916210_e6ad5378bc_m.jpgA great post yesterday by Ali Hale on Dumb Little Man tackled the question of how to best optimize your to-do list. As she points out, while a to-do list is really just a series of tasks you want to complete, there are dozens of variations on the theme. And no matter how fancy or ambitious your list might be, it's completely meaningless if you ignore it or it's not based in reality.

Hale suggests four ways to improve your lists.

1. Figure out what should go on the list.
First of all, if a task doesn't need to get done, and you don't want to do it, don't put it on the list. If a task takes less than 15-20 minutes, remove it from the list or batch it with other smaller tasks -- for example, replying to e-mail. And break down big tasks, such as "Write monthly report," into smaller chunks ("Get sales figures," "Create pie chart," etc.).

2. Decide if paper or electronic is the best fit for your list.
If you're on the go and away from your computer a good part of the day, a paper list can be very convenient. But for the office-bound, electronic lists have the advantage of being easy to edit and update. Hale suggests Remember the Milk, a free online task-management app that I've also written about.

3. Reconsider prioritization.
If you find yourself putting off "low-priority" items, think about whether you should simply remove prioritization categories altogether. After all, everything on your list needs to get done eventually, and you should be able to complete everything on your list in an average working day.

4. Decide if you want to use a "closed" or "open" to-do list.
A closed list is one you write at the beginning of the day and to which you won't add any new tasks. An open list typically starts with a few must-do tasks, then gets additional tasks added as the day progresses -- with the intent of getting them all completed the same day.

Open lists can be dangerous because it's easy for the list to get unmanageably long, and it's also an inefficient way to work. Instead, start with a closed list, and when new tasks come up, add them to tomorrow's closed list or shift some of the current or new tasks to later in the week (unless they're genuinely urgent).

(image by karindalziel via Flickr, CC 2.0)

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.