Want To Be More Productive? Try Rearranging Your To-Do List

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This is an updated version of a post that appeared on this blog in November 2013. 

try this simple trick to be more productive!


Like most busy moms, I’m a list-maker. There is simply no way I could juggle the constant demands of work and family without putting pen to paper multiple times each day.

Write it down, cross it off, repeat.

Most of the time my list-making tendencies serve me well; they keep me calm by ensuring I don’t forget to schedule my son’s doctor appointment or submit that article by the deadline.

But every now and then, during particularly busy days or weeks, my lists become so impossibly long—overflowing with more tasks than any mortal could feasibly complete—that they themselves become a source of stress and anxiety.

I start tossing and turning at night over the fact that I didn’t have time to cross it all off. While that sometimes makes me more productive, other times it makes it impossible to see the forest through the trees and get to the tasks that matter most.

To prevent this from happening, I’ve started building better to-do lists. And by better, I mean prioritized.

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The key for me is dividing my list into columns so that I’m not just mentally prioritizing my tasks—I’m physically repositioning them as well in a clear, visual way. It’s a simple step that wards off the giant, totally unmanageable list that inevitably builds up if I let it.

Column A

Column A represents the mandatory. As in, the world will stop spinning if the items here are not taken care of today. (OK, maybe not, but there will definitely be major consequences in my life.) Baby is completely out of diapers? Absolutely have to get some. Client requested a follow-up call? Definitely must pick up the phone and dial.

There’s no compromising with Column A—I’m not hitting the hay for the night until every item is complete.

Column B

Then there’s Column B. The tasks listed here really should get done today, but if they don’t, life will go on relatively smoothly. Once the essentials from Column A are complete, I start striving to accomplish as much of Column B as possible.

Dad’s birthday is still a few days away, but it’d be great to pop his card in the mail today. I want to reply to that email soon, but it’s ok if it has to wait until the morning (or next week, as the case may be).

In an ideal world I’d complete Column B every day, but ideal worlds don’t exist—especially not once kids are in the picture. If my eyes start drooping before the last item is crossed off, I won’t lose sleep over it.

Column C

Ahhhhhh, Column C. Here I list the tasks that I hope to accomplish someday soon, but most likely not today. Maybe within the next week? The next month? Six months? Column C items are never pressing matters, but rather things that I’d like to do if and when I ever get a spare moment. Finish writing in the baby book? Wonderful! Organize the paperwork on my desk? That’d be great! Get a pedicure? Lovely!

Tackling Column C items would be helpful and fulfilling, but if time doesn’t allow for it, I don’t sweat it.

Column C can also provide some insight into the current pace of my life, and by extension, my mental and emotional state of being.

For example, if I go for a full week or two and notice that not a single Column C item has been completed, it’s a sign that I need to slow it down a bit, that the speed of my life might be starting to get out of hand.

It becomes a visual reminder that while of course I need to be taking care of the mandatory items, the little things—the things that are mostly for my peace of mind or personal interest—deserve some attention as well.

I’ve found that taking a mile-long to-do list and prioritizing it into Column A, B, and C provides an instant sense of calm. It reminds me that even though my plate is full—or, let’s be honest, I’m juggling six plates and they’re all piled sky high—I don’t have to get it all done today, this week, or this month.

Focusing on just one column at a time puts the emphasis on the tasks that matter most on any given day, allowing me to feel accomplished instead of constantly behind. 

I’m guessing you’re a list-maker too. Do you ever find that your list gets so long it itself becomes a source of stress?

image via aafjevandehulsbeek