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Five Tips to Tame your To Do Lists

to do list 1

I bet you have made a to do list or two in your time. They can be a very helpful planning tool. They can also be a mamouth, unwieldly, pressurising reminder of how far behind you are.

Here are Five tips to help you Tame your To Do Lists and make them work for you.


1. Distinguish between To Do Lists and To Choose From Lists

At least once month, usually twice, I block out my diary to create a Studio Weekend. The only things I plan to do on that weekend are to make art in my studio and to hang out in BocBoc, my local cafe. The latter is because sometimes I need a physical break from the repetitive tasks of quilting and because it is there with a nice cake that I am happy doing the planning and thinking and browsing art books and magazines that is part of making art for me.

Despite the focus, when I first started this practice, the To Do Lists for those weekends were longer than my diary page would hold. I never got through them and Sunday would end with me feeling that I never had enough time to be an artist and that I was a slacker for not completing my list.

When I took a step back the problem was obvious. During my work weeks when I was at work and dreaming of the creative pleasures of the studio, I would jot down all the things I wanted to do at my next Studio Weekend. What I produced was a life Wish List not a To Do List. I totally over estimated what I could achieve even with no distractions. Yet, when I tried to restrict my Studio Weekends to a prescriptive To Do List I felt restrained and my creative spontaneity squashed. I wanted my weekend to be relaxing and fun and reflect my mood on the day, whilst still being productive and efficient. Studio Weekends were meant to be a pleasant break not a marathon of jobs.

The solution was to make two lists. A To Do List of small specific time limited steps that must be completed that weekend and could not be allocated earlier in the week. Then a Wish list of all the potential good things I could do. I label this ‘To Choose From’. It serves as a reminder of what ideas I captured but establishes the fact that these are options not rigid requirements. At the end of the weekend the choices I did not make either get binned, get transferred to the next Studio Weekend choice list or added to a To Do List if they are becoming time limited.

I knew this would improve my mood. What I did not expect is that it would increase my productivity. I think it is the child in me. Told I have eighteen chores to perform I begin to drag my feet and protest that I need to relax. Presented with eighteen treats and time to indulge I start to grab at them with eagerness like a kid in a sweet shop.

2. Make your To Do Lists date specific

One long list never gets completed because new tasks get added to the bottom. Plus there is the temptation to cherry pick the easy tasks and leave the others on the list.

Adding tasks to specific days of the week means you have shorter lists to tackle. It means you can schedule tasks before they turn urgent and demanding. You can also batch tasks so that those that require you to be at a particular location or in a particular state of mind can all be done together.

3. Use time estimates

In my day job as a court based lawyer, the question, ‘What is your Time estimate?’, is a frequent one. It is not enough to ask a Judge for a hearing at a particular time of year. He or she will want to know how much time to allocate to the case so the lists can be managed properly.

Thinking the same way in my creative and home life helped me overcome my tendency to over commit. If I use time estimates I can see that my To Do List for a particular day is full and I can plan no more that day.

( See my previous post on time recording to assist with this).

4. If possible allocate the tasks to a specific time of day.

This is not always possible or desirable. Many of my tasks are a floating daily list because I can fit then in in odd moments of the day and I cannot know in advance when those moments will open up.

But if you have a lot of control over a day it is worth allocating the tasks to a time of day. Do your hard and unpleasurable tasks first to get them out of the way. Or, if you are a night owl when it comes to creativity, put your production tasks in the evening and the admin task in the morning. This also prevents you realising at nine pm that your last task is to bake bread that takes three hours to rise!

5. Make it a To Do task to organise your To Do List

Rewriting perfectly good lists in a different colour pen is procrastination. Or alternatively relaxation if you enjoy it and it is not taking up time you should be doing other things. Taking five or ten minutes to sort your tasks and ensure they are still doable at the time and date planned and adding new ones in thoughtfully, is a key part of making your lists work for you.

Do you allocate a particular block of time for your creative or leisure activities?

Do your To Do Lists control you or do you control them?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alison Reeves #

    Good post Helen – I have many ‘To Choose From’ lists!

    February 2, 2013
  2. I have my grandkids over a lot so I don’t get much done on those days. I have a couple days a week where I have more time to get things done and I do exactly what you mentioned for your Studio Weekend and I make a mammoth list that I can’t possibly get done. I’m working on keeping it realistic.

    Enjoyed the post.

    February 2, 2013

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