How to make the most of to-do lists

Richard Branson is an avid to-do list maker
Be ruthless and think small – but don’t forget to include the unusual and personal niggles.
They are the little lifesavers that many of us have out of both habit and necessity. A 2008 Microsoft survey found that nearly 70 per cent of Brits keep at least one to-do list, and report that they feel less stressed when they’ve got one to work from. In the US, they’re even more popular. But do we use them efficiently?
Entrepreneur and productivity expert Vanessa Loder, writing for Forbes, believes that ineffective to-do lists stem from people using them “as a measure of self-worth”, ticking or crossing something off to validate “good work”. But despite popular criticism, many business greats are pretty serious to-do list enthusiasts. Here is what you can learn from them.


Virgin’s Richard Branson is extremely keen on lists. “I have always lived my life by making lists,” he’s said. He keeps four main types: one of people to call, another of people who can “make things happen”, a list of things people say, and a list of ideas. Rather than a list being a day-to-day creation, as many recommend, he keeps an ongoing record of the useful elements of other people’s ways of working, along with his own, writing down conversations, day dreams and cherry picking good comments from others. He even holds on to old notebooks (he doesn’t bother with anything technologically fancier), revisiting them to see if there’s an idea worth reviving. He also has running lists of topics to blog on, tweets to send, and upcoming plans.


But if you do want to move towards fewer sheets of paper, Loder suggests ensuring you can draw a line between quality and quantity. It might feel good doing a short or easy task, but you shouldn’t prioritise based on that. Further, make sure you keep things manageable. A to-do list that you cannot reach the end of is not one worth having – it can also heighten stress, she advises. That’s because most people actually list what Loder calls a “data dump” – everything they want to get done in the near future but haven’t done yet. This is not a to-do list, she insists. Take time to note down everything you want to achieve, but then pick just three items from it that you’re going to focus on that day. To enhance your focus, make it the night before, psychologically pushing yourself towards the most pressing tasks.


If you really can’t bear the idea of whittling your tasks down so drastically, there are other means and ways. Business guru Barbara Corcoran is another great list maker. Speaking to FastCompany, she explained her secret. First, she creates sections, prioritising two or three. Then she has a review section, which includes the short, noisy tasks which can be dealt with quickly. These aren’t a priority, explains Corcoran, but they’re things that need to be done during the day. Last comes the project list. “That’s where the gold is,” she says. These tasks are the ones that will make money and progress her business. She uses an A, B and C system to sub-categorise these items. Time-contingent things are As, for instance.
Of course, it takes courage to move away from “safe” to-do lists. And there may be some things that you just can’t shake from your mind, even though they don’t feel like immediate priorities. Loder identifies these as small tasks, which aren’t strategic but might still be important to you. Examples could be ordinary, or slightly bizarre – buying a birthday present for a family member, or renting out a carpet cleaner to deal with a stain that’s been bothering you. If that is the case, don’t give yourself a hard time: it might just deserve a place on your list.

Make the best lists

More than a to-do list aggregator, the beautifully-designed Wunderlist allows you to note unlimited tasks and ideas, and share them with family and friends when you need to. You can sync reminders for shopping lists and errands across devices, and even begin a to-do by saying “Okay Google, make a note...”

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