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So many of my clients these days struggle to find a good to-do system.  Having a single, reliable to-do system puts you in command of your days by providing a complete picture of everything you need to do.

It’s essential to choose a to-do list format that works the way your brain works.  Supplementing a digital calendar with a paper to-do and notetaking system is very popular, because for many people–their thinking flows best pen to paper, and physically writing things out helps to remember and process them better.

Finally, your to-do system needs to allow you to organize your tasks in a way that makes it easier to get things done.  Even if you can’t get to it all, it’s easier to prioritize when you have full context.  And when everything is present and accounted for, it’s easier to stay focused on the moment.

5 Ways to create an “Intelligent” To-Do list

  1. Capture your to-dos right away. Write things down as you think of them, the minute they are assigned to you, and immediately following phones calls and meetings. …rather than waiting until the end of the day, or week or until your mind feels like it is too full to try to recall everything you need to do. It’s more efficient to capture while things are fresh in your mind, and the burden of trying to remember “floating” items steals time, energy and focus.That means you should carry your to-do list with you at all times, and  build in buffer time between activities—5-10 minutes following meetings and work blocks to capture to-do’s into your system.
  2. Group similar tasks. Batching tasks in your to-do list (e.g. batching calls, writing, management tasks) is a great way to boost efficiency when processing, and triggering your memory for additional to-do’s. It also helps you prioritize, by revealing the highest impact items within a category, as well as redundant tasks. Try using a Multi-Project or 2 ColumnTo-Do list if you want to keep track of multiple lists.  To-Do Tabs can further to separate to-dos from meeting notes, work from personal, and sub-divide work tasks by project, client, colleague, or timeline.
  3. Add time estimates. An “intelligent” to do list, which goes way beyond just asking “what” you need to do, and addresses how long each item will take—so that you can make realistic plans for each day..   Add time estimates to every task on your list, especially if you tend to under or over estimate.   Acknowledging how long things take is the #1 gateway skill to good time management.  Once you do the time math, you can determine if tasks are worth the time invested, and if there is enough room in your day for all that needs to be done.
  4. Start every task with an Action Verb. ” A to-do needs to be concrete, actionable and clear.   Cryptic notations, such as  “Board report” or “Joe”, “Grocery store”, burden you with having to remember what what you meant by that. Make your task list approachable by starting with verbs: Update Team CalendarArchive Board Report, Setup Case BinderSend Joe thank you note.
  5. Break large projects down into smaller, completable steps. Huge multi-part projects such as “Solve Staff Issue” “Redesign Website”, “Plan Wedding” can be intimidating, and live on your list for too long, stealing the satisfaction of crossing them off.  Map out each big project on a separate notesheet, Identify sub-steps of 15 minutes to 2 hours—e.g Review org chart, Define core issues to address, Decide on color scheme, etc. Whenever you sit down to tackle items on your to-do list, you can focus on completion—asking yourself, “What can I finish?”  not “What can I start?”. 

Julie Morgenstern

For over 25 years, New York Times bestselling author and organizational consultant Julie Morgenstern has transformed the way individuals and companies function around the globe, including American Express, Microsoft, FedEx, and the NYC Mayor’s Office.

Her cutting edge advice has been featured on programs from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Good Morning America and NPR, and she is regularly featured in a variety of print magazines and publications, including Forbes, Harvard Business review, and The Wall Street Journal.

In today’s fast-paced culture, professional success often seems synonymous with long days, never-ending to-do lists, and sleepless nights. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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