How to Write That Indispensable List

Benjamin Franklin has often been described as the Godfather of the to-do list. In his daily schedule he included the morning question ‘What good shall I do this day?’ and followed it by a detailed plan to get the most out of his waking hours. When he was 20, he created a plan to develop traits which he thought would make him a better person and when he exercised any of the 13 traits, he would mark them off on a chart to track his progress. His attitude to self improvement remains as important today as then. If you’re looking to improve your productivity, team, project completion rate or just get more things done, these few simple steps will help…

Step 1: Braindump

Moving thoughts from the brain to a piece of paper or software is hard at the best of times. But when it comes to jotting down those tasks which you’ve been putting off for a while or pushing to the back of your brain, the job is even harder.

Start by just getting everything that needs to be done. This can range from the mundane (‘Buy 12 eggs’) to the complex (e.g ‘draft annual project planning’) to the spiritual (e.g meditate 20 mins’). Seeing it all written down may be daunting, but hopefully alleviating your mind of some of the things you keep telling yourself “I must remember to…” will help you focus and relax a bit. The list will remember them for you! Plus, you might find that once you get going, the list gets longer and longer. Do not worry! This is merely the first step…


 Above: Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule!

Step 2: Be Specific

Notice how I noted that it was12 eggs and that the task for project planning surrounded drafting. By just writing down ‘annual project planning’, when it comes to starting that task, you may spend precious time figuring out how just to go about the task, which can lead to feelings of overwhelm and a reluctance to refer to the list in the future.  David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done, highlights the importance of writing tasks down as an action, which should prevent you using non-specific (and often unhelpful) terms.

If you’re a fan of calendars, look away now. Allen states that calendars only manage 3-4% of what you need to take care of and your commitments. The other 97% or so is taken care of by our brain, which, he says ‘sucks’. To learn more about the David Allen’s methods for getting things done, watch short the video below. To find out how allthings can help you implement such a system on your PC and mobile, click here

Step 3: Prioritize

So, you’ve got that crazy-long list of things you need to spend time on. Where to begin? With the easy stuff? With the hard stuff? Nope and nope. Starting with the easy stuff will only cause trouble later on, as the more complicated stuff that needed to be done perhaps had deadlines, and those are fast approaching. Starting with the hard stuff is courageous, but as before, the time-sensitive things will suddenly appear and could throw you in a state of panic. In this situation, tasks may be overlooked or rushed, leading to mistakes.

The answer? Prioritize by most important or deadline. This is especially useful as you complete task after task. You’ll have created a plan within a plan and following it will be straightforward as you move from one task to another. You won’t even need to read past the top 2-3 items on the list as you know the rest of the tasks are merely waiting their turn.

If something changes remember to readjust the list as appropriate. Your list is a flexible and ever-evolving entity…


Step 4: Set Time Estimates


To help transition from Task A to Task B and so on, setting a time estimate for each task can further help reduce feelings of overwhelm and keep your productivity running like a well-oiled engine. It’s a good way to divide up hours responsibly. Doing this on a week-to-week (or if you’re brave, month-to-month) basis will keep you focused and you can sleep easy knowing that you’ve left enough time to make allowances for anything unexpected. Like that coffee…

When you create future tasks which are similar, you’ll be able to more accurately predict the amount of time spent. This will come in handy when creating your own Franklin-esque schedule.

Step 5: Categorize


This is especially useful if you have a particularly long list, or the tasks are shared with someone. You could separate the list into ‘Office work’ and ‘Home’ or ‘Life’ to help you separate tasks and truly engage with the work-life balance saga. Within a list for a big project, categories can come in useful, for example, you could order the list in terms of the project’s stages: ‘research’, ‘plan’, ‘gather materials’, ‘create’ and so on.Arranging your tasks this way can be useful when you need to glance and receive information quickly, making you more efficient and productive.

With my own ‘Home’ list, which is shared with my boyfriend, tasks are categorised under headings like: ‘fix’, ‘clean’, ‘move’, ‘sell’ and ‘buy’. Of course, within these categories, the urgent things are a top priority. Don’t worry though, cleaning the oven remains a low one…

Step 6: Share and Sync


If you’ve digitised your list and many tasks on it include someone else (let’s hope there’s nothing too personal on it) then it’s time to share. Delegation is just another chapter in the epic list-writing magnus opus. (c2t) Not only does it take some of the weight off your shoulders, it opens up communication, which can sometimes be key to getting something done right. Plus, there’s software out there that can help with this (…ahem) which will also allow you to sync your calendar. By syncing your calendar with the deadlines on the list, you open up the possibilities of receiving notifications and updates to keep you on track and prepared for anything as you enter the office. It should start to change the 3 or 4% that a calendar traditionally mirrors, to something a tad more helpful.

Tweet: Delegation is just another chapter in the epic list-writing magnus opus

Writing a really awesome to-do and sticking to it religiously may be difficult at first, so you could add ‘check to-do’ at the bottom of your first list and every list after that until it becomes a (productive) habit. Plus, it’s important to remember that everybody perceives their to-do as unique; organise it, display it and use it in a way which you feel makes you achieve more, without the stress.

Do you have a tip for creating that indispensable list? Let us know in the comments below!

See also: caffeine vs lists: the ultimate battle for productivity