5 Ways to Shorten Your To-Do List

Here's how to easily cross out some of the stress in your life. 

Posted in , Apr 7, 2017

Woman checking off To Do List

Just being human means having stuff to do. Those lists can swell from a handful of things to dozens—from calling a client to paying the cable bill to shopping for groceries. Here are some ways to calmly whittle down that list, whether it's simply spinning around your brain, scrawled on paper scraps, or neatly typed in your phone. 

1. Actually Make a To Do List

It doesn't matter if you get it all done, some experts suggest that actually writing down what you have to do is incredibly helpful. One neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, says that since we can only hold about four things in our mind at once, writing them down makes sure we're not wasting time trying to remember what we have to do. Writing them down relaxes us and allows us to plan our day and move through it with greater confidence and ease. 

2. Take Breaks (and Vacations)

Get rid of any guilt you might have about dropping the spreadsheet for a moment to watch that hilarious cat video that's going around. Studies show that these kinds of micro breaks actually make us more productive and focused for longer periods, thus better able to bushwhack that to-do list. Also, don't be like the more than half of Americans who don't use all of their paid vacation! Studies show that vacations make you a happier, more productive worker. Get out of here—even if it's for a relaxing staycation. 

3. Do the Worst First

Since social scientists know that self-control and willpower are things that diminish as we use them throughout the day, many recommend getting your most dreaded (cough, most important!) to-do done first. Mark Twain called it "eating the frog"—because the day can only go up from there! Sure, it's tempting to push it back and do the mindless stuff first, but it increases the chances that a) you'll be feeling lousy about yourself all day b) you won't get it done. Checking it off will give you a cognitive boost to power through other things, too. 

4. If It Takes Less Than Two Minutes, Do It Now

Keep that list short by never even letting certain items on! In the book Getting Things Done, author David Allen advocates for the "two-minute rule"—which is what it sounds like—if an item will take less than two minutes, don't list it, don't schedule it, just do it now. The email that will take you less than a minute to respond to? Just reply. The socks on the floor? Don't walk by them 30 times before popping them in the hamper! This approach keeps your brain free to do the big stuff later. 

5. Complete with a "To-Done" List

Whether you keep a to-do list or not, seriously consider a "done" list. At the end of the day, sit down and write out all you managed to accomplish. Some experts say this helps give us a sense of satisfaction about our day—and can also provide valuable feedback about what we spent our time really doing. Which, in the end, is what we need to face the next day smarter, readier, and happier. 

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