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The Secret to Shrinking Your To-Do List

To-Do lists don't usually work - but they can. Here's how.

You are juggling way too many projects and goals at once. There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get it all done. And the stress of keeping all those balls in the air is killing you. I may not know you personally, but I’ll bet that’s a pretty accurate description of your work life. I’ve yet to meet a successful professional who feels like the have time and energy to spare.

You probably use some version of a To Do List to keep track of everything you need to accomplish. (There may even be another one on your refrigerator at home that contains things like clean out the garage and paint the guest room.) To Do Lists are a good idea – well, technically they are half of a good idea. Because if all you do is make lists of the projects you need to finish, odds are good that they will remain unfinished far longer than you want them to. It’s easy to get through an entire week, look at your To Do List, and realize that even though you were worked really hard every day, you still can’t cross a single thing off of it.

Decades of research on goal pursuit shows that when it comes to execution, there are two major pitfalls that keep us from doing the things we intend to do. The first is that we don’t get specific enough about what exactly needs to happen – the specific actions we need to take to reach our goals. If your goal is to make a good impression on your boss, you need to break that down into actions like arranging a weekly meeting, or turning in reports on time. To Do Lists can help with this part of the problem, so long as they are made up of specific actions, rather than vague goals.

The second pitfall – the one that To Do Lists don’t help you with at all – is missing opportunities to take action. Did you really have no time to work on that assignment today? No chance at any point to return that phone call? Of course you had time, but you were probably preoccupied with something else, or simply forgot about it until it was too late – something busy people routinely do. Achieving any goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.

The good news is that there is a solution – one that has been shown to increase your likelihood of reaching your goal or finishing your project by 200-300%! It’s called if-then planning. The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance. The general format of an if-then plan looks like this:

If (or When) ___________ occurs, then I will ________________.

For example:

When it’s 3pm today, then I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that project.

If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I’ll go to the gym before work.

If it’s Tuesday morning, then I will check in with all my direct reports.

Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity for taking action when it arises. So grab that To Do List, and next to each action, add a when and where. You can transfer your To Do List to your calendar if you prefer – just make sure that you pair what you need to do with when and where you’ll do it, and your productivity will soar. If-then planning may not actually help you add hours to your day, but use them often and it will feel like you did.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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