The To-Do List and How to Use It

On an average day, you will find me making a to-do list. Generally I scribble items down in a plain, lined notebook and then happily strike them off once they are completed. Other times my system of record-keeping and time-scheduling will involve two or three sources; one reminder on my phone or email calendar, one reminder on a paper calendar hanging on the wall, and one reminder in my lined notebook. Redundancy of this sort assures me that I will never forget a particular commitment, no matter how small.

I recently read through an article from FastCompany on the history of the to-do list (read the full article here). This article suggests that we use lists to make sense of the world and reduce the necessary complexity and ambiguity of our daily habits (FastCompany article). Additionally, lists can be used to break down the component parts of things around us, allowing us to challenge assumed definitions of those things  (FastCompany article). The to-do list therefore incites psychological responses in the human brain and extends beyond its usefulness as a scheduling tool.

To-do lists are most commonly used by people to achieve goals within their busy schedules. However – and I’ll be the first to admit this – items recorded on a to-do list don’t always get done. Consequently, the FastCompany article recommends a series of tips for ensuring that you do complete whatever is on your to-do list for the day/week/month/year:

  1. Break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks (see also Maria Popova’s article here);
  2. Prioritize the most important things and set aside less immediate demands;
  3. Set out your to-do list the day before to avoid wasting time on sorting out your priorities;
  4. Monitor what is not working in your list, and take steps to change it; and,
  5. Consider your own unique situation and modify accordingly (FastCompany article).

These are all great tips, and obviously certain time-management tools like the Pomodoro Technique can further assist those struggling to get work projects completed. Now if only someone could invent a magic pill to destroy procrastination, we would all be experts of efficiency and accomplishing goals.

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