If there is one thing in life that remains a constant beyond birthdays, a change in seasons, and paying taxes, it’s a seemingly never-ending to-do list. Just when you savor the exhilarating, albeit fleeting moment of crossing off a chore or errand, it always seems like you’re also adding three more things to take its place. Meanwhile, proper time management seems like something unachievable.
But what if there was a way to rework a to-do list so that it seems less like a burden and more like an organizational tool to map out your busy schedule?
“When you execute with purpose, your tasks don’t seem so daunting. They become achievable,” says time management coach and founder of The Fire Inside, Sade Jones. “If your to-do list is long and seems impossible to tackle, it means you need to reevaluate your list. Otherwise, you’ll remain in the overwhelming cycle of always feeling behind.”
As we enter the new year, we tapped Jones to share her top tips in achieving to-do-list bliss. Check out nine important steps you can take below.
Write everything down
The Notes app in your smartphone is obviously a fantastic place to start, but don’t underestimate the power of keeping a pen and paper nearby.
“Stop treating your brain like a filing cabinet,” advises Jones. “Writing things down helps you remember them, clears your mind, and holds you accountable. It also enables a higher level of thinking so you can take more focused action.”
It’s important to note that this running list is not necessarily your list of top priorities for the day. It is simply a list to help you remember everything you’d like to accomplish and will not take the place of a finalized to-do.
Categorize your long to-do list
Once this list is created, you’ll then want to separate tasks into categories. Examples may include work projects, errands, family responsibilities, and appointments.
“This will look different for everyone,” reminds Jones, who says to look for recurring themes so that you can label whatever is pending.
Identify your priorities
After categories have been established, the next step is to identify priorities.
‘“The simplest way to identify a priority is to think about what are the most important and urgent tasks that need to be completed in a certain time frame,” advises Jones. “If you often don’t complete your daily list of tasks, it’s because you haven’t selected your priorities and provided yourself with enough time to complete the task.”
Color coding the tasks within your categories is a great way to denote urgency.
“Setting personal time restraints stifles procrastination and fosters productivity,” says Jones. “People are often afraid of setting deadlines for themselves because it’s so easy to follow a deadline given to us by others.”
“When you learn to establish your own deadlines and abide by them, you increase your self-trust and self-discipline,” she adds.
Create a column that indicates concrete due dates and be sure to set earlier deadlines for anything of particular importance. This will give you wiggle room and ensure the task will be completed, no matter what life may throw your way.
“Time blocking is a time management strategy where each task you need to complete gets time scheduled on your calendar, so you can make sure you have the bandwidth for every to-do list item,” shares Jones.
Rather than simply checking off items on a list, Jones recommends using a digital calendar to organize your time. Doing this will actually show most people they simply don’t have enough hours in a day to reasonably finish what they intended.
“It’s how we use those hours that define our lives,” she says. “Many of us overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a month. Unlike money, you cannot borrow, store, or save time for later.”
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Clarify your tasks
Consider specificity before adding an assignment. Vagueness can lead to a mismanagement of time, especially if projects take a lot longer than expected.
“That way, when it’s time to tackle that item on your list, it’s clear, concise, measurable, and realistic,” says Jones, sharing that a content creator like herself may want to put something like “create three graphics and write three captions for the launch of my goal-setting course” instead of just “create content.”
The more clarity, the easier it is to also time block and prioritize.
Break down your bigger, long-term goals
According to research from the University of Scranton, only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals.
“Writing down your goals is only the first step,” says Jones. “After you’ve identified what your goals are, it’s vital to identify your roadmap to achieve them.”
Jones herself conducts a masterclass explaining this process, but she advises all of her clients to first list the smaller tasks needed to accomplish larger goals. Next, it’s important to set those aforementioned deadlines for each task and check in on your progress on a weekly basis for effective time management.
“If you really want to crush your goals, frame them around the behavior change you want to achieve instead of the result,” she adds. “Instead of making your goal ‘lose 20 pounds in three months,’ you could commit to “working out three times a week and eating healthier for three months.”
Rather than hopping from one random task to the next, Jones is a huge proponent of batch working: dividing your workflow into different days or hours so that you can focus on one topic for one block of time.
For instance, on Mondays she creates content, on Tuesdays through Thursdays, she takes calls, and on Fridays she dives into administrative tasks.
“Group like-minded tasks in your day and set up themes for each day’s tasks,” she recommends.
Focus on one task at a time
Unsurprisingly, batch working is a time management strategy that will also allow you to also focus on one task at a time.
“If you’re not focusing on one thing at a time, you’re doing multiple things poorly instead of one thing greatly,” reminds Jones. ”Decide on one task, then start working on it and only work on that one task. It eliminates distractions and gets you in the zone.”