Productivity: The Perfect To-Do Item

This is the first in what will be a series of productivity-related posts. These posts and tips can be used by parents and non-parents alike!

The to-do item. Whether you use paper or an app; your calendar or a list; many lists or just one; scattered post-it notes or a system…you very likely create to-do items in some form or fashion (even if you just make a mental note). How you phrase a to-do item makes a huge impact on whether or not you will do that item, which is the entire point. 

You might be avoiding your to-do list because your to-do items suck. You can fix that by being mindful when adding items to the list. Force yourself to examine anything you add and ensure everything conforms to the guidelines below. If you don’t have time to be mindful, flag it to remind yourself to come back to it later and write it out more thoughtfully. This extra 30 seconds of effort up front could mean the difference between doing it this week or 6 months from now.

So here are the A,B,Cs (guys, I couldn’t help myself) of The Perfect To-Do Item.

Your items must be able to be acted on. Hence the “do” in “to-do”. Items that are too nebulous will require you to think about what action you must take. You will feel unsure about what to do and do nothing.

Start items with action verbs and be very specific about the action to be taken. Pick action verbs that are things you regularly do and are comfortable doing.

If you can’t figure out what to do next, add the item “Think/Journal/Talk about [XYZ] for 10 minutes.” Pick the brainstorming method that is right for you, but don’t add something that is not a call to immediate action.

Sometimes, for something to be truly actionable, it must be broken down into its component parts. You might have heard the phrase “next right action.” Identifying what the actions are for a given goal is critical. Add multiple items whenever needed. Which leads me to…

Rarely do we sit down in front of our to-do list with endless hours of time stretched out ahead of us. Moms have the 45 minutes remaining in nap time. Students have 15 minutes between classes. Executives have 5 minutes before the next meeting starts.

Keep items manageably sized. You might need to add multiple items to ensure that your items are actionable, as I mentioned above. You might also need to add multiple items to ensure they are appropriately sized. Getting into meal planning can seem daunting. But it seems much less daunting if you add the items:

  • Research meal planning app for 30 minutes
  • Pick meal planning app
  • Install and set up meal planning app
  • Create meal plan for next week

and then do each item as you have time to. You would never begin that process if you thought you had to complete it in one nap time or between meetings. And that’s what you would feel like if you just added “Meal planning” to your to-do list.

Whenever applicable, give yourself a time limit (i.e., append “for xx minutes” to the item). Tasks like researching, thinking, or reading could go on forever. In advance, choose what seems like a reasonable amount of time and then hold yourself accountable to that time limit. You can duplicate the task if you need more time. When in doubt, pick 10 minutes.

We’ve all done it: you look at your to-do list and you cannot remember what an item means. Or, more insidiously, you can remember, but it takes you a few moments to recall.

The perfect to-do item can be snatched up off your list and executed immediately, without much thought. We generally seek the path of least resistance. If you have to pause to think too much about the item, you are less likely to do it. You will go back to trolling Facebook or scan down your list for something easier.

Again, invest in a few extra moments of upfront effort (i.e.,  write a few extra words to provide context) to avoid delaying items.

Examples (some to-don’ts and to-dos, if you will):

× Table runner fabric
✓ Go to Jo-Ann’s for 1 hour
✓ Buy fabric for table runner

We needed some action verbs, multiple items, a time box for that shopping trip (you can go back if you can’t find what you want the first time!).

× Gifts
✓ Write list of people for Christmas gifts
✓ Research gift for Aunt Shirley on Amazon for 10 minutes

Much context needed here, plus about 10 more items to research everyone else’s gifts. Always time box (and literally start a timer on your iPhone) to avoid internet rabbit holes.

× Bin in nursery
✓ Assess contents of bin in nursery
✓ Fill donation bag from nursery bin
✓ Archive toys in closet from nursery bin
✓ Drop off donation bag

This is exactly the type of task I would never do because it seems daunting. Break it apart and do it over the course of several days or weeks. If you weren’t sure where to put toys, add item “Determine where toys from nursery bin go.”