January is widely regarded as a time for renewal and reflection on the past year. In the midst of the resolution-making and restarting, though, it can be an overwhelming time for some people. I don’t know about you, but January is when I realize I need to catch up on all of the things that were put on hold over the holidays AND start looking ahead and planning for the new year.
Though I detest the new year’s resolution bit, I did decide to make one pretty drastic change this year—I create a to-do list EVERY SINGLE DAY. In the past, I’ve made to-do lists sporadically—typically only when I’ve realized, “Hey, I have a lot that I need to get done today, and I don’t want to forget anything.” What I’ve realized, though, is that making a to-do list every day makes me far more productive and also more satisfied at the end of the day, even if I haven’t finished everything on the list.
So why are to-do lists that great?
They free up mental space and reduce anxiety.
If you’re not convinced, take it from an expert. McGill University neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin, author of the book The Organized Mind, says most people can only hold about four things in their mind at a time. When you make a list of the things you need to do, you don’t have to keep trying to remember them (which we all know takes effort). You reduce the potential for anxiety and can use the extra mental clarity to figure out how to complete the tasks that you need to accomplish.
Your priorities are visible and clear.
The approach that is working for me is to pick out the 3 things each day that are the most important or pressing. I keep my list on my phone, so I bold those 3 items to set them apart. Then I focus my energy on getting those 3 things done, so that, at the end of the day, even if nothing else on the to do list disappears, I know that I accomplished the things that were top priority. Though it may be a baby step to knocking everything off of the list, it’s a highly gratifying one.
It’s a roadmap to actually getting things done.
No one else is going to look at it your to-do list, so it can be as detailed and full of minutiae as it needs to be in order for you to complete the tasks on it. In fact, when you add an item to your to-do list, make sure you are breaking it down into its component parts. For example, if “redecorate the office” is one of the items on your list, you’re probably not going to make much progress on it because it has too many pieces. And when it doesn’t move off of your list, you’re going to be frustrated. If one task involves a number of smaller tasks, list each actionable item. Your to-do list might look longer, but don’t despair—it will be far more helpful to you.
If you want to delve more into to-do lists and REALLY getting organized, check out David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.