Lisa Noble Photography for Getty Images
Lisa Noble Photography for Getty Images

You probably either never make to-do lists or can’t function without them. Organizing your personal or professional life into daily or weekly goals has its benefits, and you get that great feeling as you cross off each item. But if your list is long, complex or unrealistic, you’re just setting yourself up for failure, and that does not feel good at all.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Carrie Barron notes that lists help you zero in on the true focus of each task and create order from chaos, as they “provide a positive psychological process whereby questions and confusions can be worked through.” Further, Barron says lists can motivate you to take action while helping you to prioritize and figure out steps to get the task done. Add a deadline, and you’ll create urgency.

If you’re feeling scattered and unproductive, “a list can take you back to feeling proactive, grounded, calm and clear,” Barron says. Although you may feel that you’re wasting time making a list, in the long run you’ll most likely make up that time by pursuing tasks in an organized manner. In fact, creative people like hairdressers may benefit most from spending a little extra time designing an attractive-looking list. “Making your list beautiful via spacing, formatting, graphics and font choice is an added way to quell agitation,” Barron says.

Vanessa Loder, a contributor to Forbes, offers five tips for making daily to-do lists:

  1. Keep it simple. Limit your list to three items per day. Even one “to do” can be enough. If you could do only one thing today to improve your health or move your business forward, what would it be? That’s today’s #1 or only goal.
  2. Write it the night before. “This helps you start your day with clarity,” Loder notes. “You know exactly which item you need to complete by 10am the next morning.”
  3. Do first things first. If you’ve prioritized wisely, the first, most important task on your list will be waiting for you to tackle it in the morning when you are fresh. Loder recommends attending to this task before you check email and phone messages. Accomplishing your #1 item will bring you a great deal of satisfaction.
  4. Clear your mind. If you can’t focus on one item as your mind keeps wandering off to all of the other things you need to get done, Loder suggests trying a technique she calls a “data dump.” She instructs, “Take five minutes, no more, and write down every single thing you can think of that you need to do in the next week, personal or professional. Write it all down just to get it out of your head, and then put that list away.” Writing it all out will provide a psychic release, and then you can go back to the focused list you prepared for the day.
  5. Sometimes, think small. We like to tackle our big tasks, but if something small keeps haunting you, you’re probably spending more energy on it than necessary. Include it on your day’s list and just get it done! Once you’ve returned the friend’s phone call, dropped the dress off at the cleaner’s or straightened up your closet, all of that procrastination energy will be freed up to address the biggest goals.

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