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6 Essential Elements in Writing To Dos

In a not-so-recent Lifehacker post, I read the rather surprising stats about To Dos (logged in a particular type of software):

41% of to-do items were never completed.
50% of completed to-do items are done within a day.
18% of completed to-do items are done within an hour.
10% of completed to-do items are done within a minute.
15% of dones started as to-do items.

This post had me thinking about how I structure my own to do lists. In fact, I simply write in my planner what needs to be done on a given day. My office and research to dos are on the top of the page, with the appointments I might have marked at their time slot, and at the bottom I scribble down my to dos for the evening.

Given the fact that so few to do items ever get finished, and some others get finished almost right away, it is necessary to spend some time reflecting on when an item becomes a to do task, and how to treat these.

Over time, I’ve put a lot of effort into optimizing my own time management system, and writing to dos, as well as planning tasks is an essential element of organizing your time.

Here are 6 essential elements that you need to keep in mind when writing a to do.

1. Focus on the essential

Identify your Most Important Task of the day, and put that on top of your list. It might be tempting to go and do a lot of small things (reply some mails, file some papers, pick up a delivery, …) but the most important task is what you really need to do.

2. Assess your time

Before starting to put 5 tasks on your to do list for the day, assess the time you have, and the time you think you need to finish them. If you don’t really know how much time certain tasks take you, start tracking your time.

3. Distractions

If there is one thing for sure, you will get distracted. Allow for some buffer time in your schedule. If you work 8 hours, you can’t fill these 8 hours with net work on your tasks. When adding to do items to your list, make a quick assessment of how much time of your day is lost by distractions.

4. Be early

If a task needs to be done, start working on it early. Don’t put items a day before their deadline on your to do list, but plan them over a longer period of time. Take your own deadlines seriously, and work accordingly.

5. Think long term

Identify the tasks that really move your work forwards, and spend enough time on these. Don’t let the tasks that are not urgent but important slip behind in your schedule, but place them high on your to do list.

6. Alternate tasks

If you can’t focus on the same task for the entire day, add different types of work on your to do list. For example: combine writing a section on a journal paper with sorting out data in a spreadsheet and reading a paper. Not only will you get some more variation in your tasks, but you will also set shorter, defined times to work on these tasks. Short time slots are beneficial from your overall productivity.

How do you handle your to do list? Do you get your tasks done or do you find it hard to deal with distractions?

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