Be more productive by making one change to your to-do lists, says a time management expert


If you've ever struggled to find your focus and cross items off your to-do list, you're not alone.

Over 40% of to-do items are left incomplete, according to data from project-tracking app IDoneThis. And while making a long list of every single unfinished task you hope to knock out may seem like a good place to start, it may actually be counterproductive.

Instead, prioritize a short list of goals and be selective and realistic about the tasks you choose.

"I think the best thing you can do with a to-do list is to keep it short," says Laura Vanderkam, productivity expert and author of "Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done." "There is absolutely no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and then not doing it."

Here's how to create a to-do list that actually helps you get things done.

The strategy

When you're making your to-do list, you may be tempted to write down every single task you have to complete, no matter how small.

But jotting down everything from "fold laundry" to "attend weekly team meeting at work" can add up to quite a long list. When you're looking down at what may seem like an endless number of tasks, you might feel overwhelmed. And if your to-do list makes you feel unmotivated to tackle any task at all, then it's counterproductive.

Unfulfilled goals actually impede our ability to complete other tasks, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

So be selective about your to-dos. At the end of each day, put some thought into making a list of three to five larger goals for the next day. You'll want to be realistic about what you can accomplish that particular day and what is more of a reach goal that probably won't happen. Knowing your limits is essential in boosting your overall productivity, says Vanderkam.

The best thing you can do with a to-do list is to keep it short. There is absolutely no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and then not doing it.
Laura Vanderkam
author of "Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done"

Your daily list should be made up of tasks that have the most impact on your overall productivity. This might include completing a pending assignment at work, spending time with your family, or setting aside a block of time to tidy up specific rooms in your home.

If you're working on a goal that takes longer than a day to complete, set an intention for that goal. Say you want to write a book. Instead of setting a goal of writing a certain number of pages each day and beating yourself up if you fail to do so, vow to dedicate one hour that day to working on your novel. That way, you can check the task off your list, and you've made progress toward your larger goal.

The outcome

Coming up with a few solid objectives each day will help you focus by giving you tasks to refer back to when you find yourself off task. Think of your list as a promise to yourself that, if nothing else, you'll strive to meet these objectives.

"I would also recommend putting a time next to any item on the to-do list, 'When are you going to do it?' and an estimated time, 'How long will this take?' All activities take time, so if you're not willing to give an item a time, you're basically saying you won't do it," says Vanderkam.

The rule of thumb, though, is to keep your list short and sweet.

"In the past, I had this long list of things in my head that I wanted to accomplish, but I wasn't hitting any of them because it was too many things to do at once," Chris Browning, founder of Popcorn Finance told Grow earlier this year. "I was just spreading my effort around."

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