FROM OVERWHELMED TO ORGANIZED: HOW TO CREATE A BADASS TO DO LIST
A mentor asked me a few weeks ago what my answer would be to the question, “what are you an expert in?” My answer: providing accountability, structure, and a framework for success. This is my unique contribution to your wellness. I may not inspire you to drink celery juice [but are we really that bummed about this?], but I can definitely teach you how to get shit done! In this post I share my methods for creating the optimal to-do list that gets me closer to my goals every day.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT DOING
In this post, I talk a lot about “to-dos”, accomplishing tasks, and work. I’m a “do-er”, so this language flows naturally for me. And, this was the arena in which my badass to-do list was born! However, sometimes the things that are most important for us to accomplish are not the things we “do”. While I sometimes find it helpful to add certain wellness techniques, habits and desires to my to-do lists, I also often block out relaxing time on my calendar to be sure that I don’t over-schedule myself out of some much needed R+R. No matter what context in which you use these tools, I hope they support you in getting closer to your goals, whatever arena they’re in!
1: DECIDE WHEN
Before we dive into how to create the perfectly productive to-do list, it’s important to call out when to make your to do list. Maybe creating your to do list is the first thing you do each morning, or the last thing you do each evening. Maybe you create a morning list and an afternoon list at the start of your day and after lunch.
Everyone is different, so find what works for you in creating balance of preparedness and happiness.
I create my weekly to-do list on Sunday for the following week, and I create my daily to-do lists for the next day right before I stop working.
2: PICK YOUR PLATFORM
One trick to creating a to-do list you’ll actually do is to pick the platform that works best for you. In all areas of my life, I’m a tech person. I don’t own a file cabinet. I have one folder full of essential papers, and everything else is in the cloud.
My calendar, communication, address book — and even my business — are all online.
I tried (and failed at) bullet journaling. My Recovering Type A brain wanted a beautiful, mistake-free, color-coded journal, and my messy handwriting caused more stress than enjoyment.
But when it comes to my to-do list, my favorite platform is a dedicated notebook and a pencil. My to-do list is literally the only thing I write down.
Maybe your preferred platform is a google doc, a checklist app, a white board, or a notebook like me. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that it’s what works best for you.
3: ORGANIZE BY WHAT’S IMPORTANT
Yep, you read that right. The key to a great to-do list is to organize it. Actually, I’ve found this is the key to just about anything in life. How you organize your to-do list will determine how you’ve framed your task and can make-or-break your time management.
You can choose one of the methods below, or employ multiple that work for you! I’ve found that there’s quite a bit of overlap in these methods on my to do list.
A few ways to organize your to-do list include:
By time period. This method works especially well if you work on certain days but not others, if you have a schedule full of a variety of obligations, or if you know that certain days of the week are more productive for you. For example, I create a weekly to-do list, then assign tasks to each day of the week. Focusing on a weekly list first helps me to avoid overwhelm. As a new business owner, I want to do all the things. It helps me to set my sight on what I want to accomplish this week, so I can take effective, incremental steps towards my larger goals.
By urgency. This tactic works especially well if you thrive with external accountability, if your work is based in deliverables to someone else, or if you have a tendency to procrastinate. This method also works well if your work has a large depth, meaning you’re highly focused in a narrow area that you’re a top-to-bottom expert in. For example, I’ll order my list by deadline, with the most urgent items at the top and the things that can wait at the bottom.
By category. This organization works especially well if your work has a large breadth of tasks, meaning that you’re a generalist who does a lot of things under an umbrella function. For example, I’ll make to-do lists of the things I have to do for my business, for contract work or specific clients, for my personal life, and for my yoga studio.
By color. This tool is exceptionally helpful if you work on a team, because it allows you to quickly glance at your list and report to others on things like completion status and bandwidth. It also allows others to quickly make sense of it to better understand your work. For example, when I managed a team, I asked them to color code based on urgency/completion status and delegation. Things that were complete were turned green. Things that were urgent were colored red. Things that were in progress were colored orange. Things they needed me to do were highlighted purple, and projects that they didn’t want to forget about but were not priority were coded blue.
By time commitment. This method is massively helpful if you’re crazy-busy. When I was working 60 hours a week in a gnarly job, trying to squeeze months of work in between back to back meetings all day, this organization strategy saved me by maximizing my efficiency. If I had 20 minutes between meetings, I could quickly glance at the “15-20 min” section of my to do list and right away identify one thing I could get done, without wasting 10 of those 20 minutes figuring out what to do! PS - I don’t suggest staying in a job like this. And, if you are in a job like this, I hope this tool helps your sanity. PPS - You are perfect and worthy just as you are. You do not need to hustle for your worthiness. Your happiness is your primary responsibility in life. Take a deep breath. I love you.
I’ve employed all of these methods at some point. These days, I organize by time period (weekly and daily lists), urgency (I set deadlines for myself and list in the order of target completion date) and category (personal, business, clients/contract work, and yoga).
Prioritizing builds on organizing. In the previous point, I talked about how to structure your to-do list to best serve your work- and lifestyle. In this point, the focus is to ensure that you’re allocating your time appropriately.
One obstacle to not actually doing the things on your to-do list is not knowing where to start and/or feeling overwhelmed by the list. I find a great solution to this is to make it super clear what your priority is, so you don’t have to think about it (i.e. waste time not doing the things on your to-do list).
There’s no right or wrong way to prioritize.
Maybe a certain area of your life needs to be priority right now, so getting your car cleaned has to wait. Maybe you have a deadline coming up, so that project is priority and nothing else get’s looked at until it’s submitted. Maybe your tasks are dependent on one another, so you have to prioritize accomplishing one thing on Monday so that you can tackle its follow up on Wednesday.
Rather than thinking about your list as a whole, consider each item and what order they should go in. Then, order your to do list based on priority. This can be done within any of the structures already provided:
By time period. Write things down in the order you’re going to do them on a certain day. This way, you know exactly what your Monday is going to look like, and when you sit down at your computer after a long weekend, you can jump right in.
By urgency. Make your list based on when they need to be accomplished. The deadline can be a meeting, before you leave for vacation, with the goal to end your day at 5p, before/after lunch, or a due date for a project. Another option for “urgency” is importance. Sometimes a task with the highest priority isn’t the one with the earliest deadline, but the one that is most important at that time. It can be important because it will impact your life, because it’s an exciting opportunity, or just because it’s something that you need. By prioritizing based on urgency or importance, you’ll ensure that you don’t start something new until the priority is done.
By category. Write things down in the order you’ll accomplish them within a certain area of your life, then work through your to-do list by doing the first thing in each category, then the second thing in each category, etc. For example, maybe your personal list includes filing your taxes and getting your car cleaned, your business list includes writing a blog post and sending a newsletter, and your yoga studio list includes preparing for your class tomorrow and sending an invite for a weekly meeting. You can file your taxes, write a blog post, and prepare for your class tomorrow, THEN circle back on sending a newsletter, creating the invite for the weekly meeting and maybe, if you have time, get your car cleaned.
By color. As noted above, you can prioritize by color coding based on urgency, completion status and/or delegation.
By time commitment. Maybe you work best when you start with small tasks (that take less than 2 minutes each) to get warmed up and then dive into more time-consuming projects. Or, maybe you like to start with a big project to get your brain juices flowing, then tackle all the tasks. I’ve found this method of prioritization works best when used in conjunction with your schedule. I prioritize based on time commitment depending on what amounts of time I have free/busy on my calendar.
My top tips for prioritizing:
I prioritize based on urgency and importance first
I set deadlines for myself, but when I’m feeling stressed by them, I ask myself if they’re real or arbitrary and adjust as needed
I reprioritize frequently. I may believe that something needs to happen in a certain order, but circumstances change and often I’ll shift things around to accommodate new things on my plate, an alternate focus, or new information
5: DO IT + CELEBRATE
You’re perfectly set up with a badass to do list. Now, you just have to do the things!
I encourage you to find ways to acknowledge and celebrate yourself as you do the things on your list. Maybe a check mark or crossing it off feels like enough to you, or maybe you put other structures in place to reward yourself. While I sincerely hope this post helps you accomplish all the things, be sure to do what you need to do to feel accomplished whether you get your whole list done or not.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to iterate! Try one thing for a week, and make tweaks to fit your work- and lifestyle as you discover what’s working and what’s not. What works for me may not work for you, and that’s great!
I love the feeling of crossing something off the list, so this usually feels like a win for me. And, at the end of each week, I make sure to acknowledge myself. Here are a few of my favorite ways:
Look back at the list(s) and acknowledge how many things are crossed off, even if it’s not all of them
Identify one thing you’re proud you did this week, instead of putting off
Think about what’s possible in the future (tomorrow, this weekend, next week, next year) because you did the thing
Rest. The best way to maximize this tool is to support yourself in doing it forever. So, be sure to stop doing things at some point, so you can recharge and get after your goals again tomorrow