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Writing a To Do listLooking for a way to avoid actually doing things?  There are two great solutions:  meetings and lists.  In this article I’m just going to discuss lists though, specifically the To Do list.  We’ve all got one, even if it’s just mentally and not written down.

Yes, lists can just be an avoidance tactic, but they can also be a very useful tool for being organized if you use them effectively.

My definition of an item for the To Do list is anything which is not part of your normal routine.  Writing this article is not on my To Do list, because I write it every two weeks, so it’s a routine task.  I set it as a repeated event on my calendar, so I can easily see when it’s due.

What would qualify as a To Do item is a task which has not yet been scheduled.  You’ve decided it’s something you want done, but you haven’t yet fully committed to it by setting aside a time.  Some of my current ones are: reinstall phone software on computer, write another bonus e-book, fix leaking tap, ring customer service at ABC company, put some photos on memory card to take to be printed.

This can be a very scary list, getting longer and longer, with items being added faster than they are getting crossed off.  When it gets like that, you might tend to stop bothering to write things down on it, because it’s too depressing.

This is no good.

Keep your list going, no matter how long and scary and depressing it is.  Do spend time writing it and re-writing it (or typing it).  Do include everything you can think of.  Imagine a genie was going to come and get it all done for you.  Ah, now you feel like listing lots more things.  I suggest this, because I find it useful to take the focus off how difficult you think each task is going to be, and focus instead on what benefits you will gain from having each of these tasks done.  So as you’re going through your To Do list, think about, even make a note of, the good outcome you will get from having that task completed. 

For example:-
- re-install phone software on computer – will allow me to plug phone in and update calendar, and change my ring tone.
- write another bonus e-book – will increase value perception to potential customers and increase sales.
- fix leaking tap – will make daily life easier and stop water being wasted and reduce water bill.
- ring customer service at ABC company – will force them to address my questions which they are avoiding by email, and hopefully solve the problem I am having.
- put some photos on the memory card & take to be printed – will allow me to print some favourite shots of my kids for a frame & for my purse, which will give me pleasure.

The next things I suggest are to estimate how long each item is likely to take, and prioritise them.  This is where it’s easy to get bogged down, because it’s not always straight forward.  There are iffy bits.  Sometimes you’re not sure how long it will take, or even how to do it.

Perfectionism and the ‘all or nothing’ syndrome can creep in here.  Don’t let it.  Just take your best guess for each item.  If it needs breaking into parts, break it into parts.  You may decide some of the items are actually projects or mini goals.  To break a project or mini goal into tasks which can go on your To Do list, the thing to do is break it into parts which can be completed in one session, say no more than a couple of hours.  This is because you want to be able to take an item from your To Do list, and schedule it to be done on a certain day, being pretty confident that you can actually do it unless something unforseen comes up.

You may also find it better to separate your tasks into categories, such as work, household, family and personal.  If there are a lot of items for each category, they can be split up into further categories.

The point of all this categorizing is balancing your time.  In order for any of your tasks to get done, they must have time allocated to them, and a good way to balance your time is to allocate time to categories first, and specific tasks second.  It’s a simple thing, but easy to miss. 

Having a block of time allocated to, say, household tasks, allows you permission to stop and change to something else when the time is up.  Allocating a block of time for personal tasks, gives you permission to start them.  For example, if you really need to shop for some clothing items for yourself, perhaps you’ve been putting it off because you had so many other important things to do.  This way, you can make an allowance of time to do things for yourself, knowing your other items are still being planned for and attended to.

When you have a lovely selection of long To Do lists, a separate one for each main category you have decided upon, and each item broken down into tasks which can be completed in no more than a couple of hours, and a rough guess time estimate for each item, you can prioritise them.

If they’re hideously, scarily long, select the top 10 or 20 items and put them on a separate list.  Now number the items in order of importance.  Each time you add a new item, re-assess the order of your top items.

Now think about the amount of time you have available in a day, and in a week, to spend on these items, either in total, or in categories if necessary, such as work, household and personal.  This should give you an idea of how many items you can reasonably expect to cross off your list each day or week.  How is it looking?

If you are having trouble getting the items done, and it’s not because of time constraints or knowing what you need to do, what is it?  You may need to look a little deeper for things like how you feel about your work or your home or yourself or whatever area you’re tending to procrastinate in.  Perhaps there are issues you can resolve simply by thinking them through logically and making a decision about what you want.

Are the items on your To Do lists consistent with your values and goals?  Are they things that will benefit you and bring you a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment?

Where do you keep your To Do lists?  Are they somewhere you can access them quickly and easily and comfortably?  Are they well laid out and easy to use?  Do you prefer them on your computer or hand written, in a notebook or on loose sheets of paper?

Are you comfortable with them being seen or do you feel better if they’re private?  I still feel a little self conscious about my lists, and prefer to work on these and other personal planning when I have some privacy.  I don’t know why, perhaps I think other people will think some of my items sound silly.  If it’s a list of things to be done around the house, I don’t care if it’s stuck on the fridge (inviting anyone else to have a go at them as well), but stuff to do with my personal goals – well, I don’t really want to draw attention to how long it’s taking me to get through the beginners piano book.

Which brings me to – when is your regular planning time?  You need to be able to add items to your To Do lists as you think of them, but you also need a regular time, probably weekly, for scheduling items from your To Do list onto your calendar, diary or daily planner.  That’s the step which commits you to getting them done.  If they’re well prepared as discussed above, they should be ready to be added to your schedule for a particular day and time, and you should feel confident you’ll be able to complete the items.  If you don’t, why is that?  Does your list need more thought and preparation, or is there a conflict with how you really feel about getting that task done?  Do you need to break it down into smaller chunks?  What, exactly, might stop you from getting that item crossed off the list?

If you can get things rolling with getting items from your To Do list completed regularly, whether it’s several per day, or several per week, you can build on your successes and really get some good results from it.  You’ll feel better, your self esteem will benefit, you will make room for other tasks to be done, even things you didn’t think you were capable of, and you’ll be eliminating stress and mental clutter that you really won’t miss at all.

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