4 ways to organize your to-do list

A key for any professional looking to get ahead in their career is mastering the art of organization. Now we emphasize the word “art”, in this sense, as organizing can meet a lot of things for different people and doubly more for the specific situations they find themselves in. 

For some, organizing can mean getting your space in a much cleaner setup with possible streamlined efficiencies for the areas you need to work in. With a better workspace, you’re likely able to feel more focused and productive to get things done as you’re less likely to be distracted by your surroundings. 

Other times, organizing can mean your ability to take down and retain information. Note-taking isn’t something that’s new to most of us that have been to school, but the ability to take notes efficiently while grabbing as much information as you can while the same is being conveyed to you is certainly a skill. It’s become such a topic of interest in academia and professional circles alike that several different methods are established to help people take notes better.

But for this article, the kind of organizing we will be focusing on gets to the heart of productivity by focusing on its key elements: the tasks themselves. While we like to think of tasks as being simple chronological steps toward completing a specific goal, in actuality, they are anything but. Tasks, even when mapped out, can be complex, unexpected, and at the worst of times, overwhelming. Those of you who might have tried using to-do lists to get organized might have felt frustrated that your productivity and effectiveness at certain tasks do not change. That’s why we’re here to let you know that there are concrete ways to improve that old to-do list of yours to become your best partner at work, at home, and everything in between. 

Benefits of a To-Do List

The humble to-do list might not get a lot of attention from business experts and thought leaders, but adaptability to suit any single person’s individual need for quick task organization likely serves as a backbone for some of the biggest companies. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group of Companies, swears by lists through their ability to keep him on top of things in his daily life. “To say that life as an entrepreneur and business leader is busy is an understatement”, Branson expands on how he approaches his work, “ So, in order to make sure I achieve everything… I make lists – lots of them.”

He’s not alone in this mindset as well with other high-profile people likely to agree, from Olympic Gold-medalist Shannon Miller to Former first lady Michelle Obama. To-do lists, task lists, work lists, or whatever you might call them, form a guide for how we navigate our day-to-day lives. Not only does it help improve productivity, but the feeling of being organized and on top of your tasks gives you a better sense of mental health and might even improve your personal life as a result. 

Key Foundations to Great To-Do Lists

Getting started with to-do lists is a very intuitive process and you will likely not need too much guidance at the beginning, but things can quickly go awry if you don’t start using more elaborate techniques. People often complain that keeping up with their own to-do lists is hard, or that they make a list that they find difficult to stick with.

A good way to start developing your to-do list for a better and more productive working schedule is to utilize similar concepts to SMART Goal Setting. With SMART Goals, you are looking to develop specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals to better put you on the path of success. The thinking here is to apply that same methodology toward the crafting of your specific tasks (likely in service of a larger goal). 

Always keep each task specific and measurable to avoid any ambiguity regarding its fulfillment. A good reason why many people fail to even conceptualize their to-do list is they often stick to vague concepts like “Finish project” or “Send email”. While these are certain tasks, they lack the specificity to be tackled in a straightforward manner. Refining these two tasks can be done either by including subtasks (ex. “Finish the project by doing tasks X, Y, and Z”) or by being more granular in detail (ex. “Send email to Managing Director by 12 noon regarding Project Z”). The more detail you give with any given task, the better. 

Despite coming later in the acronym, a good task should always be grounded in reality, meaning achievable and relevant to a specific goal. Tasks might be left undone if you later continuously find them impossible or unnecessary to complete. Ensure the task itself is within your capabilities to accomplish (or if you will need help from someone else) while maintaining a certain level of relevance toward why you’re doing the task. 

Lastly, attaching a deadline might not be the most exciting or desirable part of creating a task, but it definitely keeps you on your toes. Setting a time to complete a specific task will help you organize when you should be doing the task and even allow you to plan some slack time for a little wiggle room.

4 Different Ways to Organize Your To-Do List

Even with the SMART framework, you’re likely going to come to a crossroads on whether your to-do list is helping you manage your tasks or just adds to the pile of things you’ll need to do. Moreover, it can be incredibly frustrating to have a to-do list that just keeps growing with more things to do and constantly stressful deadlines. 

Instead of getting rid of to-do lists entirely, you could just be going about these lists in a way conducive to your work style. Below are some of the ways you can rethink how you organize your to-do list that might fit better with your day-to-day working habits. 

Synchronous Calendar Schedule List

One of the standard ways to approach a to-do list is to have it plotted on your calendar synchronously. This essentially gives you two ways to visualize your tasks, either in a list method provided by the to-do proper or on an overarching schedule view provided by your calendar. 

For those with highly standardized workflows that have little variation from each other, this method of to-do list management works as it essentially just maps out when you should be working on specific tasks. Moreover, if you use specific apps that integrate well together, you can likely avoid double-listing and managing your tasks from one application as it automatically syncs to the other. Routine document management across departments can benefit from a simple to-do list like this, where methods and structures regarding tasks are standardized. 

This method of organizing falls short, however, when looking to manage tasks that are dynamic in nature or complex in execution. For example, marketing managers that need to juggle different project development timelines and execution monitoring may find it difficult to distinguish tasks with higher importance, complex requirements, prerequisites, or all of the above. 

Eisenhower Method

The second way to organize your to-do list is to utilize the Eisenhower method, which gets its name from the very same American President. The Eisenhower method essentially categorizes all your tasks into different categories of importance, from most to least. Through this, you’ll be able to juggle the most critical tasks to manage the first while allowing the less sensitive tasks to days when you have more flexibility. 

Based on this method, you can categorize the tasks into four distinct categories, or the 4Ds of the Eisenhower method. The first category is the most important, or your “do first” category. These tasks are the most critical to your current work, either due to the importance of the issue, its time sensitivity, or (more often than not) both. The second category to place this task is a “do later” group. These tasks are still important but don’t have the same urgency as those tasks in group one, and hence you can afford to schedule to work on them later on. 

The next category is a lot less urgent and categorically less important for you personally, which is essentially the time when you should “delegate” the task. This means the task still needs doing, but not necessarily by you on your own time. This is useful for when you have a team you can collaborate with in order to get things done efficiently. Last, and almost as important as the first category, is our “don’t do” group. These tasks require a little review to see if they are even worth doing in the first place. Utilizing this last group can help you cut down on tasks and make your work much easier. 

Multi-List with Prioritization

This next method of organizing your to-do list is actually a combination of many different strategies in to-do list management and stacks their functionality for better productivity. Here, you’ll want to begin by creating more than just one list, ideally categorized based on an overarching theme such as personal, work, or shopping, with the possibility of adding sublists within each one. 

The idea here is to categorize each task so you don’t lose track of any particular to-do list item while managing to organize it into a specific group of related tasks. This can help you ground your task in relevancy as well as speedily take note of dynamic task additions by simply navigating to the appropriate task list. 

A key aspect to include in this organizing method is a prioritization list, ideally through some tagging or flagging method on your chosen task application. This can help you comb through each individual list, similar to the Eisenhower method, to mark tasks that require specific attention as a priority. You’ll have all your main category lists and your priority list, giving you a quick guide on items to focus on today while never losing sight of what’s coming next. 

Personal Kanban

Last on this list borrows from the agile methodologies playbook by introducing a visually-informative system that not only organizes tasks but allows for easy collaboration across teams. A Kanban is often seen in agile workspaces as an overarching task board with different tasks assigned to different members of a team. A personal kanban, on the other hand, utilizes the concept of the task board and applies it to your own to-do lists. 

A kanban board starts off with separate columns indicating the status of specific tasks. The most common categories are usually “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Done”. You’ll then organize your tasks by grouping them in their appropriate status areas. This can give you an idea of how much work is yet to be done, how much you’re currently working on, and which tasks you’ve already completed. The personal kanban is useful for those who like having an easy visual overview of their tasks and their respective statuses. 

Similar to the multi-list method, you’ll likely be utilizing some sort of tagging method to categorize tasks. If you were doing this on a physical board, you can separate types of tasks based on the colour of the sticky notes on the board. But in today’s virtual-first environment, you can easily have an online platform create a board for you and tag tasks respectively according to their type or task group. 

Key Things to Consider with Your To-Do List

The beauty of these to-do list methods is that you can easily combine different strategies to work in unison. Much like to-do lists themselves, you’re not limited to utilizing just one method or adhering strictly to how these are set up. Simply test and find the one that works best for you and brings you better control over the tasks ahead of you. 

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