We are all busy people. Work, deadlines, families, personal responsibilities – staying organized is paramount. I live by my calendar. Every now and again my phone, laptop, and office desktop decide to stop playing nice with each other and I have a small meltdown (haha…but really, it’s true). As an academic, I’m involved in several ongoing projects, each with their own set of deadlines, meetings, and responsibilities, and having all of these things organized in my calendar is key to staying organized. Additionally, I am a firm believer in writing things down. To that end, I’m a habitual to-do list maker. In fact, if you’ve been following along on Instagram (@thedoctorette), or if you saw my last post (here), before Nathan and I left for California I made a list of things we needed to remember to do with a dry erase marker on our bathroom mirror. This is a tactic that I use on a regular basis when we are heading out of town. It may seem a little cray, but let me tell you what, it definitely works. I also make sure to make my list a few days in advance. Why? I’ll explain in a bit.
Whenever the topic of to-do lists comes up with friends and fellow colleagues it’s almost always accompanied by the tone of disappointment because they have failed to check everything off their list, or they haven’t made as much progress as they would have liked. So naturally, to-do lists don’t exactly elicit positive vibes. I would like to challenge this commonly accepted perspective towards to-do lists and empower all of you with some tactics to make your to-do lists work for you. Hopefully with some new to-do list tools in your belt you can feel more accomplished because you guys rock and it’s time you start feeling like the bosses you are.
1) Pick a medium for your to-do list
Whether it’s the notes app on your cell phone, a cute paper notebook, legal pad, post-it notes, there are a lot of ways to approach your list making. I prefer to have a paper version of my to-do list because there is something really satisfying about physically crossing something off the paper list (sometimes I scratch some items off more vigorously, haha). I feel like if you are excited about making your list because you get to use your really cute notebook (I love Rifle Paper Company’s note pads and ban.d0’s notebooks are adorable – especially the “I Am Very Busy” notebook (here) because I mean, I am pretty darn busy) you will be more likely to use it. Pretty simple. Whatever medium works for you and best blends into your daily lifestyle, use it!
2) Make your list before bed
I’ve learned that I spend quite a bit of time just making my to-do list, let alone actually doing the tasks I put on it. I make a list of five things (yes, only five) that I need to get accomplished the following day (why only five? see #3). By having this list ready and waiting for me when I get up, I’m able to hit the ground running (after my morning cup of coffee, of course). Additionally, by making my to-do list the night before, I’m better able to think clearly about my tasks. When I’m forced to write down my daily tasks the day of, in the midst of doing other things I feel a lot of time pressure which makes me rush while making my list. When you’re rushing through anything, it’s never going to be as well thought out as it could have been. This goes for your task list too. Earlier I mentioned making to-do lists before Nathan and I leave town. I do this about 2-3 days prior to us leaving. This gives me time to figure out everything we need to do before we go, with a little bit of wiggle room at the last minute if I forgot something.
3) Prioritize your items
We tend to let ourselves get a little carried away when making lists. Before we know it, we have a list of 20 things and growing. There’s nothing like a giant to-do list to make you want to add “drink wine” to the top of that list. Pick 5 things. Five tasks that need to be finished the following day, and have those tasks take priority over the other things on your to-do list. Put a star next to them, highlight them, circle them, make their text a different color – whatever you have to do to remind yourself that these are the things that you said the night before need to be done today. Making them stand out amongst the other tasks will also help keep you accountable.
4) Make your list with achievable goals
This is really important. I used to find myself putting things on my to-do list that weren’t actually achievable goals in a day. I would put “finish cancer treatment disparities paper” on my list when (1) that paper was far from being finished, and (2) I would need to spend my entire day working on it which would make me unable to do anything else that was also on my to-do list. This left me feeling incapable of actually finishing anything which definitely didn’t help my self-efficacy. Instead, now I put “finish methods section for cancer treatment disparities paper”. It’s achievable and has a distinct beginning and end to the task. If we will our to-do lists with tasks we’ll never finish that day, we aren’t going to feel like we are making progress and this is really not helpful for our psychosocial health. I mean, you know how good it feels to have those days where you get everything done that was on your to-do list. It’s such an amazing feeling to feel so accomplished. Let’s set ourselves up to feel that way more often!
5) Have multiple lists
I keep all of my to do lists in one notebook. My five items are always at the top, and I will have separate pages for things I need to do for different things in my life. Typically these are categorized into: (1) The Doctorette, (2) Work, (3) Home, because if I don’t put that I need to go to Target to buy more toilet paper, you better bet that I will completely forget. This is really helpful too because not only does it keep you organized but it creates some mental separation. When we lump all of our tasks together into one giant list, it feels overwhelming. With things separated into categories it makes the tasks seem more achievable. It can also help you prioritize and allocate your time if you know what things have to be done for work versus for home.