How to Actually Accomplish the Stuff on Your To-Do List

To-Dos by Courtney Dirks

Sure you can make a to-do list, but can you actually cross everything back off of it?

I am a man who enjoys his to-do lists.

There’s just something about getting out a physical piece of paper and a pen and actually putting the things I need to accomplish in a day down in ink that feels really good. It makes it feel like I have something concrete to work from, something to keep me on track and focused. When I make a really solid to-do list I feel like there’s absolutely no way I won’t get all of that stuff done.

And by the end of the day, I haven’t done any of it.

So what’s going on? How do you make the jump from making a great to-do list to actually doing what’s on it?

Listing Vs. Doing

To-do lists are a really effective tool, and they genuinely do contribute to helping you accomplish the things you need to do in a day. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between listing things and doing things.

This disconnect, when manifested like it has in many of my to-do lists past, leads to a long string of great to-do lists that just never get done. The most frustrating part in my experience is that when you make a to-do list and then don’t actually do anything on it you still have the list as a physical representation of all the stuff you should’ve done that day but didn’t adding insult to injury.

Having quite a bit of personal experience with writing things down and then never doing them, I’ve found most often fixing the problem lies in utilizing a handful of techniques that get around the most common obstacles to completing your lists.

Timeboxing

I’ve talked about timeboxing before and for good reason – it works. If you’ve never tried timeboxing before, you essentially allot a specific duration of time to work on a task and limit yourself to that duration of time to do it. As soon as your time runs out, you stop and move on to something else. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed your task or not – when time’s up, you’re finished.

So how does timeboxing help get around some of the obstacles that are most common in preventing people from completing their to-do lists?

  • It Gets You Started – As a personal trainer, I come across a lot of people who have a desire to get in shape and improve their health, but lack the motivation to actually do workouts at the frequency they need to in order to succeed. Whenever I have a client who struggles with not feeling like working out, I make their first goal to just come to the gym.

    I don’t tell them to workout. I don’t care if they walk in the door and then walk out. I just tell them that I’ll be looking at their visits history and as long as they scan that card to get in the days I tell them to then I’ll be happy. Everyone agrees that even if they don’t have the motivation to workout they at least can muster up enough to come over to the gym swipe a card and leave.

    What I’ve found is, even when people leave their house with the intent of checking in and leaving, once people get in the door they’re almost guaranteed to workout. Now we’re usually not talking a personal record breaking lifting session here, but they do something. In the end, that’s the important thing.

    Once you get started in a task, even if you don’t want to do it, it’s much easier to continue to work on it for a while. Much like it takes less energy to keep water boiling than it does to make it boil, it takes a lot less energy on your part to keep doing something than it does to get started. Timeboxing helps you take that first step by forcing you to choose a task and focus on it for the allotted time. Once you’re rolling most of the hard work is done.

  • It Removes Task Dread – The brilliant part about timeboxing, in my opinion, is that it sets boundaries. People respond well to boundaries.

    Imagine if you were enrolling in college, or signing the papers for a mortgage and, rather than saying you’ll be on track graduate in four years or your home loan will be repaid in fifteen years, they told you that you’ll graduate eventually, or that your home will be yours someday they guess. I don’t know about you, but I would get up and leave.

    Without an end date in sight it’s hard to justify investing those kinds of resources into something. Tasks are no different. You’re never going to start a task that seems endless.

    When something looks to be so huge that you just can’t imagine ever being able to actually finish it, maybe cleaning out the garage for the first time in 8 years for example, it makes it so daunting and painful sounding that you just avoid it.

    Timeboxing removes that apprehension by placing boundaries on the task. Rather than, “I am faced with the endless task of cleaning the Augean stable is my garage,” it’s “Yeah, I’ll clean for an hour and then be done.”

    The second is a lot less painful sounding, and it gets you started which will lead to the momentum to keep going. I should note though that even if you get really into it, stick to your boundaries. Even if you really get into it and are rocking things out, stop at that hour mark. If you don’t, you’ll start eroding your trust in your own boundaries and it may make it more difficult to get started next time.

  • It Forces You to Take Breaks – Taking breaks has huge psychological benefits. Not only does it help you refocus, but it also keeps you from falling into a repetitive mode of thinking and getting bored with whatever you’re doing. Best of all, by not getting bored and by having a scheduled break to look forward to, it’ll keep you from giving in to the temptation of time sinks like Facebook.

    Since timeboxing restricts how long you can work on something, it forces you to take little breaks between tasks. After the break you can switch tasks or do another block of the same task – either way you’ve had five to ten minutes in between to stretch out, get your social media fix and let your mind wander.

    It may not seem like much, but all those things will make a huge difference not only in how easily you accomplish your tasks, but also your creativity and focus as well.

  • It Eliminates Multi-Tasking – Much in the way that breaks are good, multi-tasking is bad. As Ron Swanson would say, “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”

    Multi-tasking can be seductive because it makes it feel like we’re getting more done when really we’re just doing less and more poorly at that. Doing one thing and doing it well is a much better way to go about things. Timeboxing reinforces that by limiting you to a single task for your allotted time. When you’ve only got an hour to do as much as you can on a task or finish it, you don’t have time to multi-task. You have to focus on whatever it is you need to be doing right then and that means you’ll be able to work a lot better and more efficiently.

Making Good To-Do Lists

Sometimes it’s not that you’re having trouble getting your list done, but rather that you’ve gone and made a really crappy to-do list.

That’s alright – I used to make tons of them.

The two biggest things I see when it comes to poorly constructed to-do lists are overloading it with way too many tasks and, possibly even worse, not including fun tasks.

When your to-do list has 400 things on it, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Overloading yourself and then having to face the shame of an uncompleted to-do list at the end of the day is not the way to be productive. Instead, limit yourself to a smaller number of tasks that you know you’ll have the time for. Even better, pick a few out of those limited tasks to be designated as your most important tasks for the day and make sure they get done first. That way, even if something gets in the way and you don’t finish your list, you can still feel good about getting the most important things done.

On that note, reading your to-do list should not feel like reading your jail sentence. If you wake up in the morning already annoyed at how terrible your day is going to be because of all the painful stuff on this horrendous to-do list you have to do – then you’re just going to be miserable all day and likely not get any of it done anyway.

Always put some fun stuff on your to do list. Preferably fun productive stuff, but just something fun and relaxing. Having something to look forward to will make a big difference in how you feel and your success rate in actually getting your lists completed.

Do you have any other suggestions for getting things done? Have you used timeboxing before and, if so, what did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Courtney Dirks

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com