How to Write a To Do List that actually gets done

Don’t Do the Laundry Today. It Can Wait.

author   by DAZZLES IN GREEN   2019

Alan Lakein, a well-known author on personal time management, including How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, wrote an essay on how to make a To Do List.

In “The ABC’s of it”, Lakein tells us how he got the idea of creating a To Do List. “I asked successful people what the secret of their success was. I recall an early discussion with a vice president of a large oil company. ‘Oh, I just keep a To Do List,’ he said.” Another interview with a successful businessman and the same answer: “I keep a To Do List.” This particular chairman of the gas and light company would make a list in the morning of things he wanted to accomplish that day. The list was not random, but arranged in priority.

During the day he would cross off item as they were completed and add others as they occurred to him. In the evening, he would check to see how many of the items he has written down still remained undone and then give himself a score. His goal was to cross off every single item.

Over the years, Lakein have talked to many successful people and found out that those at the top of the ladder kept the To Do List, while those at the bottom did not.  

Let’s find out how to make your To Do List doable.

1. Do not try to keep To Do List in your head. It will clutter your mind. You should keep your mind free for creative pursuits.

2. Do not list routine items but do list everything that has high priority today and might not get done without special attention. You should also list activities related to your long-term goals as you have to take steps towards your long-term goals every day.

3. Set priorities. Divide your list into A, B and C tasks. It is not good to do as many items as possible on the list. You will get a high percentage of tasks done, but your effectiveness will be low because you probably have done mostly tasks of lowest priority. It is also better to have separate sheets of paper for your A, B and C list.

4. Do not get involved in completing the low priority C list over A and B. The routine matters on the C list are easy to accomplish with visible immediate results. This gives the doer feeling of accomplishment, even if the task is inconsequential. For example, desk cleaning. “It is hardly an A activity, but results show immediately. The homemaker who collects another delicious-sounding recipe when she has 500 untried clippings may kid herself into thinking that she is becoming a better cook, but the truth is that she is clipping rather than cooking."

Difficult items that you listed on your A list cannot, by their very nature, be performed well. Lakein explains, “The problems associated with them are new, untried and uncertain. Doing them means taking risks, which, whether calculated or not, will sometimes bring an unsuccessful outcome.“ It is probably for this reason that we look for something easier to do.

There is the 80/20 rule that applies to the To Do List too. The 80/20 rule says, “if all items are arranged in order of value, 80 percent of the value would come from only 20 percent of the items, while the remaining 20 percent of the value would come from 80 percent of the items.” Which means that if we have a list with ten items on it, doing only two of them will yield 80 percent of the value. “Find these two”, Lakein says, “label them A, get them done”.

The C list can be divided further into even less important tasks. These can be deferred indefinitely without harm. For example, watering the lawn when it looks like rain, mopping the kitchen floor just before the children come home on a rainy day. Then are those activities like dusting, straightening out, laundry and so on. If they can wait one more day then let them wait. Nothing is going to change significantly if these trivial tasks wait. You will simply spend less time in your life dusting, straightening out, doing laundry and performing other inconsequential activities.

Lakein says, “Always keep in mind the question, ‘How terrible would be if I didn’t do this C?’ If your answer is, ‘Not too terrible,’ then don’t do it. Do your A’s instead. Make the most of your time.”

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Dazzles in Green is an educator, journalist, environmentalist, vegetarian and avid cyclist. She holds a master's degree in anthropology.
Read other notes on stress-free life by Dazzles in Green
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