Spending

How to make a better to-do list, according to a list expert

Illustration by Euralis Weekes

Americans love writing lists, so much so that we've spent billions of dollars on notebooks specifically made for this purpose. From 2017 to 2018, U.S. consumers spent $210 billion on organizational systems and supplies like bullet journals and day planners, according to data from The NPD Group.

Part of this obsession has to do with how much we value productivity. The accepted logic is that if you make a list of goals, you are more likely to accomplish them. There's not much scientific evidence to support that but, anecdotally, many successful people — Stacey Abrams, Michael Phelps, Jack Dorsey — credit list-making with helping them reach their goals.

Still, 41% of items on to-do lists remain uncompleted, according to data from project-tracking app iDoneThis — which experts say may be because most people aren't making to-do lists that reflect the reality of what they can accomplish.

If you'd like to be more productive and cross more things off your to-do list, saving money and time in the process, consider changing the way you write the list. Here are four ways experts suggest you can make a better to-do list.

Keep a master list of priorities

When making a list of financial goals, people tend to think about ones that are top of mind, according to a 2019 study by financial services research firm Morningstar. For example, researchers found, someone who recently attended a friend's housewarming party might consider buying a home as a top goal. But when presented with a master list of aims like "saving for retirement," "feeling secure about my finances," and "caring for aging parents," 73% of people changed their priorities.

Our tendency to focus on immediate or top-of-mind tasks is why Paula Rizzo, author of "Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Successful and Less Stressed," says to make one big master list. "Do a brain dump of everything in your head," she says. Keep this list handy and refer to it when you're making your daily to-do list.

If you compare your daily to-do list to a master list of bigger goals, you may find yourself changing what you actually deem to be most important to complete on a particular day.

Break down big projects into smaller steps

Sometimes, we put projects on our to-do list that require preliminary efforts or multiple stages. For example, Rizzo says, putting "write a book" on your to-do list is not helpful because that is not a task you can do in its entirety in one sitting. Instead, put "research how to write a book proposal" on your to-do list. This is something you can actually accomplish in a short period of time that will bring you closer to the ultimate goal.

"It's about looking into that [task] and breaking it into smaller, more doable tasks," she says.

It's about looking into that [task] and breaking it into smaller, more doable tasks.
Paula Rizzo
author of 'Listful Thinking'

Time how long it takes to complete a task

Many people aren't good at predicting how long a task will take them, Rizzo says. "We'll get to the end of the day and say, 'I haven't done anything,'" she says. "Well, where did you spend your time?"

To solve for that, she suggest timing your tasks. Perhaps you think catching up on emails will take you 30 minutes but it takes you two hours. Or you allot an hour to pay bills but you can be done in 20 minutes. Gathering data will give you a more realistic sense of whether any given task is actually something you can get out of the way quickly.

Over time, this information can help you construct a to-do list that is more attuned with how many hours you'll be working that day.

Pare down your list to the essentials

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the tasks you've only half-completed? If so, you may be experiencing the Zeigarnik effect, which is our tendency to remember things we haven't done, or have only partially done, more than things we have accomplished.

Even worse, unfulfilled goals actually impede our ability to complete other tasks, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. That's why it's best to eliminate things from your list, rather than write a task down that you know isn't realistically in your bandwidth to complete.

Chris Browning, founder of Popcorn Finance podcast, says he had to do this when making his list of New Year's goals.

"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," Browning says. "I was just spreading my effort around."

After writing down his tasks, he found that some were "too big" to accomplish in the allotted time frame. So, he narrowed the list down to two or three things he could actually do.

Rizzo agrees that planning to do less is the smarter decision. "Sometimes we are our worst enemy. We keep putting things on that list then feel bad" about not managing them, she says. "It's OK to take things off. It's OK to say, 'I'm never going to learn how to speak Italian.'"

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