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Done right, it will help you get more done, show where you waste the most time and trim all kinds of excess from your life. But there is a wrong way to list, as anyone who’s abandoned a series of to-dos knows. High-performance coach Aditi Surana says making lists is a habit that is worth cultivating. Here’s how to do it right.

Stay in your comfort zone: If you’re happier with a nightly handwritten post-it on the bathroom mirror, do that. If you prefer the all-in-one-place colour-coded bullet journal, grab a notebook. If you love the pinging of an email-synced app that also lets you randomly slip in new tasks, use it. “Your list should be where you can’t ignore it, and it should be available to you when you need to add or cross out items,” Surana says.

Go beyond goals: Surana finds that people are sometimes unhappy even when they’ve accomplished what was on their list. “Consider an aspect list before you set goals,” she says. “Say your goal was to travel, and you couldn’t. What were you hoping to gain from that trip: take a break, share beers with friends, visit a museum, get a change of scene? All those can be recreated and enjoyed once you know that’s what you wanted.”

 

Don’t do a brain-dump: You could list ‘Water the plants’ and add ‘Become a millionaire’. But only one can get done before noon tomorrow. Figure out if you’re noting down steps to complete a project, a set of reminders, an archive of ideas, a collection of deadlines, or daydreams. It will help you manage your time and bandwidth better. “Make different lists if you have to,” Surana says. Consider it a way to separate parts of your mind or your life. “If you’re confused, list everything and pick the top six things you can achieve within the deadline you’ve set.”

Keep it short: A long string of tasks can be intimidating. “The more you look at it, the less motivating it becomes,” Surana says. Experts recommend picking one goal and breaking it down into its essential component tasks: “send follow-up email, collate data, compose report” sounds more doable than a note that keeps reminding you about a presentation in two days.

Prioritise: Put the most pressing tasks first, time-bound tasks in slots, the ones that can be delayed left for later. “Don’t obsess with the order of tasks if they can be done through the day,” Surana says. “If you know a new task might come up later, add it to the list anyway. At worst, you’ll be prepared; at best, you get to cross off one item you didn’t have to do!”

Factor in some rest. You might want to schedule breaks into your list as a reminder to relax. But, Surana points out, this can be a slippery slope. “If you’re on social media it’s hard to wrest yourself away, and harder to get your mind back on track. Breaks should not become quicksand.”

Share: If friends can motivate you, rope them in. If social media likes egg you on, use that. “Sharing a to-do list with a team or family member can help them see what’s on your plate.” The right to-do partner can be a good motivator too.

Don’t over-decorate: It seems obvious, but it needs to be said. There are those who spend hours on calligraphy, fancy highlighters and watercolour art to beautify their lists. Ultimately, making the list should not take away from doing what’s on it.

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