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To Build the Perfect To-Do List, Do These 5 Things

There are two types of people: those who swear by to-do lists, and those who swear at them. If you're in the latter camp, and have never been able to figure out exactly why to-do lists don't work for you, the answer is simple -- your lists aren't helping you do the right things, in the right order, at the right time. Here's how to fix them.

to-do list 

(Photo Credit: john.schultz/Flickr)

1. Write down everything you need to do today, this week, this month, and this year.

Sound like you're thinking too far ahead? Consider how much time you spend each day scrambling to catch up with something you should have been planning ahead for, or thinking ahead to a task that isn't due for a while. Keeping track of both the long and short term will save you minutes today and panic attacks tomorrow.

2. Prioritize everything.

What needs to happen before you can leave the office today -- or even before you can get your afternoon cup of coffee? What's mission-critical, and what's nice to have? Once you've figured out what needs doing, and when it needs to be done by, assign number values to each item, for example, from 1 to 5. No. 1 is "I can't do anything if this doesn't get done" and No. 5 is "my office, home, and life will be ready for a photo shoot if I can do this."

3. Estimate how long each task will take.

This will help you be realistic about what you can do in a day, as well as stave off any last-minute scheduling conflicts. Of course, sometimes things will take longer than you planned. But if you start out each day planning to accomplish six goals that will take two hours each, you're setting yourself up for failure -- or, at least, some pretty serious burnout.

4. Plan to do one thing at a time.

One of our former colleagues used to plan out her day in hourly increments, as if every task were its own meeting taking half an hour, an hour, or several hours, depending. This made it harder to lose time to internet noodling or other time wasters, but even more importantly, it emphasized the most important tenet of productivity: do one thing at a time, and you will get stuff done. For the vast majority of us, doing more than one thing at once means doing nothing well.

5. Let things go.

"When things are moving fast, priorities can change in a day or even an instant," writes Kevin Daum at Inc. "It's important to reassess and make sure the tasks on my plate are the right ones for me. Some tasks that were high priority may be less important now after new data. Or others on the team may more efficiently accomplish them. Any time I can remove tasks from my list, I free up time and energy for more productive use."

Don't be afraid to ask yourself if this or that task is truly necessary. Getting the important tasks done sometimes means not doing things that are less crucial to your goals.

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