I’m late to the gym. Again. It’s a daily recurrence, and one that irritates me far more than it bothers my trainer. I’ve been vocal about my efforts to arrive more punctually to the gym for weeks, yet arriving at the agreed upon meeting time continues to elude me.
The other night, while I was washing dishes, my thoughts kept turning to my late gym arrival. I had two choices: stew in self-induced frustration or consider the resources available that might drive change.
I decided that voicing my frustration was fruitless; I needed to figure out what actionable steps might alter the outcome of my daily tardiness.
Enter the list.
I’ve long loved lists. Long lists, short lists, today lists, tomorrow lists. Numbered lists, alphabetized lists, random lists, prioritized lists. One list, two lists, red lists, blue lists. One might call me a listoholic, given the addiction.
I’ve learned a few things in my many years of making lists. The biggest lesson is that the secret to wrangling a to-do list lies in the intent. A list carefully made and managed is an invaluable asset but a list used carelessly can turn me into a resentful minion.
Well, that’s all well and good, Whitney, you might be thinking. But how does this help me with my to do list? What does “it lies in the intent” even mean?
Let’s dive a little deeper into the world of to-do lists and discuss. There are several styles of to-do list personalities:
- The people who thrive on consistency. The same list, every day.
- The people who thrive on variety. A new list every day. Exciting!
- The people who always get it done.
- The people who never get it done. It’s always still lingering out there, being added to and edited.
Which style are you? Do you love routine? Does the consistent cadence of daily or weekly activities make you feel a sense of certainty and comfort?
Or maybe the excitement of surprise is your preferred mode. Or the open-endedness of not planning out an entire day? Do you overwhelm yourself with a list that’s unconquerable, or is your list trimmed to manageable proportions?
I’m curious where you fall. I’d gander a guess that most of us are familiar with each style of to-do list management and have a preference.
But no matter which to-do list style we prefer, we all know the feeling of a to-do list that’s never done.
I love to say “different systems for different seasons,” and the same principle applies here. Different types of lists are going to work better for different types of projects, tasks, and days.
I’ve found that a combination approach is what works for me best. The key is knowing what style of list to use when, based on what needs to be done and what your resources look like.
Here are the five steps I walk through to figure out what kind of a list I need.
Step One: What Do You Want to Accomplish?
Before I make a list, I define the purpose of the list. If the purpose of my list is to help me get out the door in time to make it to the gym in the morning, that list is going to look different than a list of things needed to complete our hall bath remodel. Before I even pick up a pen and paper, I need to know what kind of a list I’m making.
This is going to help me decide two important things: where the list goes and what will be on it. If I’m trying to nail down my morning routine to help me get to the gym on time, I’m going to pick up my Morning & Evening Routine notepad. This can help me plan out what needs to happen so I can make it out the door on time. Under evening, I might put “decide on outfit, set out shoes and socks, tidy closet.”
If I’m figuring out details for our hall bath remodel, I’m going to grab my Project Planner Notepad. And if I’m writing a list of errands I need to run this week, I’ll add them on the quadrant page of my Week on One Page Planner. You don’t have to have cute notepads to make your lists work for you but you do need to know the intent behind your list!
Now you might be thinking—okay, Whitney, but how does having three to-do lists make my life easier? It seems like that’s only going to make things harder to keep up with! Well, that brings us to step two.
Step Two: The Calendar
Before I make a list, I like to consult my calendar. Looking at an overview of the day or week allows me to see what I realistically have time for. I want my list to set me up for success.
In the case of the gym, I’m trying to create a morning routine that will allow me to be on time to my training session. I’ll need to consider what time I wake up and what I need to get done before I can leave. If my calendar shows that I have two meetings before my training session gym, my morning routine list is going to look different than if the gym is the first commitment I have for the day. On a day with two meetings before my training session, I’ll want to streamline my morning decisions. If my morning is open until my training session, I might be able to add in a few household chores or work tasks.
Step Three: The Master List
I’m guessing your question now is: what do I do with all that stuff that doesn’t make it onto my list? It still has to get done!
This is where the master list comes in! A master list is basically a brain dump of all the things. When a thought flits through my mind, I write it down here. It doesn’t matter what list it ultimately belongs to: you just need to get it down before you forget it. Then, you work from this list to make your other lists.
When reviewing your master list, don’t be afraid to edit. Remember, each of your working lists should have a purpose. At any given time, I have several house project lists running, a work tasks lists, an errands list, a grocery list, and more. Separating these lists out allows me to focus on one area at a time, and not get overwhelmed when I’m trying to figure out what’s something I need to get from the grocery store and what’s a pattern I wanted to draw. Limes? Did I want to draw a planner cover with limes or did I want to make margaritas? Or both?
So how do you make a brain dump/master list?
Sometimes, I use HEART to brain dump and categorize my list. It’s an efficient way to run through my mind and grab all the loose ends at one time.
- Help Yourself: what do you need to meet your physical needs today or this week?
- Empower Yourself: what do you need emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually this week?
- All Your People: what do your people need this week?
- Resources and Responsibilities: what stuff needs to be stewarded today, or in the future?
- Trade and Talent: What needs to be done to move me closer to my goals?
Sometimes, I categorize my lists by urgency. I use 5 categories for this system.
- List One: essential but not urgent.
- List Two: urgent.
- List Three: things left undone. (Deadline is in the past. Do I still do it?)
- List Four: things I want to do but don’t have time for.
- List Five: do not do. Just the act of putting items into writing prevents them from creeping back into my list.
Caveat: a brain dump is supposed to be messy.
Usually, my lists are a jumble of all of these categories. There are things that need to be done right away (edit blog post), things that are important but don’t have a hard deadline (finish planner cover designs), and mundane errands (order fabric samples for upholsterer). Sometimes, I add tasks just for that dopamine hit—because checking the box helps us feel accomplished and propels us forward (order more pens—done!).
But there’s still one problem left to be solved: getting the to-do list done. Because I’m pretty sure all of us, day after day, cross off the easy stuff, get the urgent stuff done (which we would have done anyway), and put off the harder stuff.
Sometimes the most obvious problem needs the simplest solution. How do we make hard stuff easy, less stuff urgent, and therefore get more done?
Step Four: Sorting the Lists
If you are like me, while you were working on your list from step one (mine: how to get to the gym on time), you thought of twenty-five new things to add to the master to-do list. Here’s where we figure out what actually deserves to make it onto our various lists.
Remember, each list should have a clear objective and purpose. Before you move something from a brain dump to a working list, ask yourself a few questions.
- Is this task or action moving me closer to my ultimate objective?
- Is it necessary?
- Does it have to be done by me?
If you answered yes to these questions, it’s time to figure out which working list it belongs on. If the answer to any of these questions is no, stop and consider if this needs to stay on your list. Can you delegate it to someone else? Can you move it to your “do not do” list?
I like to use this key to help me as I’m organizing my lists:
Step Five: It’s A Process
This is ongoing. Some people like to sit down with a brain dump and divide out their lists every morning and some people like to do it as they review the week ahead. It will take trial and error to find out what works for you. I had lunch with my friend, Sarah, recently and we started talking about “the things left undone.” The list is never complete—there is always another task or to-do to add. But even if we got every single item checked off, it wouldn’t satisfy our souls. The point of the list isn’t to end the day with every single task checked off. Rather, the point of the list is to break down your tasks so you can enjoy life instead of drowning in stress.
So, because it’s a process, I’m working on my morning routine list. I’m going to see what helps me move closer to being on time to the gym, and then I’m going to tweak it as needed, until I’ve developed a routine that works!
Drop a comment and let me know what kind of list you are ready to tackle after reading these tips!