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How to Make To-Do Lists Work for You, Not Against You

The Key to Writing To-Do Lists ... Keep It Basic, Keep It Simple, Get It Done!

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Gina Trapani, author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. The article had to do with writing to-do lists that actually work.

We all have tasks on our to-do lists that we dread, tasks that we keep pushing further and further down the list, which only adds more stress to our lives because we know they're just hanging out there in a state of perpetual incompleteness. We know these tasks need to get done, but they're either so boring or so daunting that they get buried underneath more interesting or easier things to accomplish. And therein lies the problem! A to-do list is supposed to keep you on track and reduce your stress, not increase it.

So how do you make to-do lists work for you rather than against you? Trapani suggests that far too often our to-do lists are actually lists of projects or goals rather than simple one-step tasks that need to be accomplished in order to complete a project or goal. Yet that's exactly what a to-do list should be--tasks that move you closer to the ultimate goal. For example, instead of writing, "Plan the Houston trip," which is a goal, you should break it down into smaller steps, such as "Go on-line to check flights on January 5th from Fort Lauderdale to Houston." Once that task is done, scratch it off and move on to the next step.

Trapani also suggests that your to-do list should be action-oriented and as specific as possible. Instead of "Get theater tickets," the to-do should read, "Call box office at 800-430-3030 to order four tickets to Les Mis on February 10th." It's a specific action, it's detailed, and it makes it easier to do so you can scratch it off the list!

What's the point of having a list if nothing gets scratched off? It just becomes another source of stress in your already stressed lives. So keep it basic. Keep it simple. And get it done!

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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