Keeping Things Organized: Using To-Do Lists Effectively
As I've said in previous posts, keeping a to-do list is essential for getting through a doctoral program, and it's a good idea for organizing your life in general. Many people attempt to keep to-do lists, but they do so ineffectively and come away thinking they are unhelpful as a result. But with some commitment and proper use, to-do lists can make you both more productive and more mentally relaxed. Here, I want to quickly highlight important components of using a to-do list effectively.
First and foremost, it is important to decide which format of to-do list you want. The format you choose needs to fit your lifestyle, and it needs to help motivate you to actually accomplish your tasks.
When deciding to keep a to-do list, a lot of people turn to their phone to find an app that can do the job. This can work for some (including me), but many people do not benefit from using an electronic version of a to-do list. When your list is on a device, there is a certain level of interaction that is missed. There can be a sense of urgency when actually writing your tasks, and a sense of reward when physically crossing it off the list. By having a physical to-do list, there can be a constant physical reminder of things that need to be accomplished rather than an electronic list that is easily hidden behind an icon.
However, it's important to have a good to-do list. Small sticky notes can work for some, but they are easily lost and limit the amount of information that can be written. Consider using a proper notebook of some sort for maintaining your main list, and maybe use sticky notes to write down your main tasks for the day.
For me personally, electronic to-do lists are the most helpful. By having the list in an electronic format, it can easily be synced and accessed across all devices, making edits to tasks is seamless and doesn't require erasing, and completed tasks are moved out of the way so they don't clutter the list of things to complete. As I mentioned above, there's a level of interaction that's lost by using something electronic, but the convenience makes up for it in my opinion.
My to-do list service of choice is Todoist, which you can find a link to on my Resources page (along with other helpful apps I recommend). However, keep in mind that an electronic format works well for me in part because I'm a heavy tech user, and I always keep it pulled up/visible while I work.
Make sure to use the format that's right for you and not just what I use.
As I've talked about previously, one of the biggest benefits to using things like to-do lists and journals is being able to clear your mind by taking the mental list and making it physical. People often create to-do lists for just a few tasks, or just for a specific project. To get the most benefit from a to-do list, though, it helps to fully utilize it for all of the tasks that you need to do.
In addition to reducing the cognitive load of trying to remember everything you need to get done, it's easier to organize your to-do list in a meaningful way once it's out of your mind and on paper/screen. By organizing the list and automating some aspects of it (which is easier with electronic to-do lists), it becomes much easier to focus and get everything done.
So don't hold back. Add items as soon as they come to mind, like stopping at the store later, responding to an important email, writing in your journal, exercising, and so on. When it's all in there, you're less likely to forget something. (Though having it all centralized does mean it's important to not lose access to your list, so also keep that in mind when deciding the format).
The more often we switch our mindsets, the more quickly we become mentally exhausted. To reduce these mindset shifts, it helps to have tasks grouped in a way that they share a certain mindset and can be worked on together. For example, I have "projects" (Todoist's way of creating groupings for tasks) for research, school, my dissertation, personal life, clinical work, and a few more.
Now, it's not always possible to do the same types of tasks back-to-back depending upon your schedule (though I recommend trying to design your schedule to allow for it). Even if that's the case, it can be helpful to have your tasks grouped in some way just so they have some context. Labels/tags are a nice way to add context as well, so you can keep the task title limited to the action to be performed rather than cluttered with other information. For example, under my research project I have tags for the different labs I'm in, so I can understand the task title based on the lab it's for. When I was still in classes, I used different tags for each class (which were all in the School project) to know exactly which assignment needed to be completed and in what way.
These are easy to do electronically but are also possible with physical to-do lists. Color-coding can be used for grouping, for example. If you're using a physical to-do list, try experimenting with options to see what works well for you.
This one is discussed a lot, and it makes intuitive sense, but a lot of people still don't bother to set priority levels for their tasks. The tasks themselves may be on their list, but they keep the priorities in their mind, which defeats the purpose of the mind dump I mentioned above. Priority levels can definitely change, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't assign priority levels on your list. By having the priority levels, it's much easier to know what tasks to work on first just by glancing at the list, saving you from having to read through every task to re-think the priorities and how they compare to one another.
Another one that seems so simple, but so many people don't bother to do. Deadlines can be easy to forget, so it's better to have them down so it doesn't matter whether or not you remember. Having deadlines also helps to motivate you to finish a task. If simply having a date doesn't work, you can figure out a way to have it show the number of days left until it's due, which may help the task seem more urgent. Whatever helps to keep you on-time, use it.
There are a lot of tasks we do on a regular basis (e.g., exercise, write in a journal). For daily tasks, it may be fairly easy to remember. But what about tasks that have longer intervals in-between? Bills are usually once/month. Changing filters may be every few months. How are you going to remember how much time has passed and when you are supposed to do those tasks? By having them in your to-do list, you can have comfort in knowing that it will remind you to do those tasks when the time comes.
Some people use their calendars for these kinds of tasks. While that can work, I encourage you to try using a to-do list instead. Most of these tasks are very quick, so having it on your calendar just adds clutter among your more important appointments and other scheduled slots.
Similar to the idea of using recurring tasks to help you remember when things need to be done, most electronic to-do lists now have support for reminders. Or, if your to-do list of choice doesn't, other services do (e.g., Google Now). By using reminders, you can be more confident that you'll remember to do something at just the right time of day, or in just the right place, for those tasks that you can't do at any time of the day.
If you're using a physical to-do list, you can try using services like Google Now, or you can also set alarms. It's nicer to have everything centralized into the one application, though, so I recommend going that route if possible. Fewer steps and barriers increase the chances that you'll actually use your to-do list.
Ultimately, a successful to-do list requires you to find what works for your lifestyle, mindset, and workflow. Here, I have given some recommendations and things to consider, but there should be some trial-and-error involved. If you try one method and it doesn't work, try to not be discouraged! Take a moment to think about what didn't work, and try to tweak something to address that problem rather than giving up on to-do lists altogether.
Do you have questions about successfully keeping a to-do list? Do you have a to-do list method that incorporates something I haven't mentioned above? Let me know in the comments!