7 Life-Changing, Non-Boring Spins on the To-Do List

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We make all kinds of lists: To-do lists. Grocery lists. Bucket lists. Anti-bucket lists. Making lists helps us corral information and get our heads around big tasks. Some research has shown that it can keep us from ruminating about what we haven’t done.

But lists are still a tragically underused tool. They’re great for productivity and big goals, sure, but when you get creative with them, that’s where the magic really happens. A good list can streamline your days and improve your weeks in radical, unexpected ways. Here are a few that you’re probably not making but that could make your life measurably better in ways you’ll be able to… list.

Your (future) end-of-year accomplishments

We all know we’re supposed to put our priorities on our calendars. What gets scheduled gets done! But first, how do you figure out what gets scheduled? Two lists can help you out as you think through what you want to accomplish in the coming year.

On the professional side, picture yourself in November or December. Your manager is giving you your annual performance review, or you’re giving one to yourself. It’s been such an amazing year that you’ve already got the champagne out at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday. What three to five things did you do over the course of the year, professionally, that made the year so amazing?

You can do this for your personal life too. Picture yourself at a holiday party in late 2021 (hopefully we’ll be going to parties then). If you were regaling the other guests with tales of how this was your best year ever, what three to five things would you be telling them about?

Now, between these two end-of-year lists, you have six to 10 things that should be your top priorities for 2021. Every time you plan your weeks or your days, make sure you’re taking some steps to bring at least one of them to fruition.

A “done” list

Ideally, you’re making a short to-do list for each day. You’re choosing three to five challenging but doable tasks that, when done, will make you feel like you’ve put in an honest day’s labor. But, inevitably, other tasks come up, and the completion of these tasks is also worth celebrating. Make a “done” list each day listing the various things you’ve, well, done. If this list contains items beyond your original to-do list, then you can add these items to your to-do list and immediately cross them off. Is this a little silly? Sure, but it’s oh so satisfying.

A “later” list

It’s hard enough to focus at work, whether you’re fending off chatty colleagues in the office or kids who seem to need constant snacks while you’re working at home. So, if you do manage to get in a groove, don’t get in your own way. If another task or idea or question occurs to you while you’re doing deep work, write it down on a “later” list. Later, when you take a scheduled break, you can order that present, start marinating the chicken for dinner, or hunt down the name of that company that your colleague asked you about. But if you start looking in your inbox now, 20 minutes later, you’ll still be deleting newsletters you can’t remember subscribing to, and the “deep work” groove will be gone.

A “do not buy” list

You walk down the toothpaste aisle, see your brand of toothpaste, and think, “Hey, we use that toothpaste! I’ll just grab a tube.” Great. Except you’ve forgotten that you had that same thought during your last four visits to the grocery store, and you don’t go through a tube of toothpaste per week. This error gets magnified at warehouse-type stores where, “Hey, there’s our cooking spray!” results in eight spray cans piling up in your pantry. A “do not buy” list reminds you that you will not be able to fit more frozen waffles in your freezer space.

A “last done” list

When did you last change the filters on the air conditioner, clean out the gutters, have your furnace serviced, get your oil changed, change the batteries on your smoke detector, or go to the dentist? If you can’t remember “when did I last…” (or you share these duties), then you need a “last done” list. This can take two forms: either a master list of when tasks were “last done” or, where appropriate, you could put the date near the item in question.

A gift idea list

Every December, many of us puzzle and puzzle until our puzzlers are sore about what to give friends and family. An ongoing gift list makes holiday time (and birthdays) much less stressful. Start a Google doc or put a page in your planner for gift ideas. Whenever you have a good idea, jot it down. When the relevant occasion roll around, you’ll have plenty to work with and a lot less angst.

An “anytime fun” list

The problem with free time is that it’s often hard to seize. Maybe it’s unexpected or of uncertain duration or it’s got constraints (the kids are in bed, so you can’t leave the house). These days, Covid-19 restrictions narrow the options further. So, when such time appears and we lack the energy to think of great things to do, we turn to whatever is easiest, even if this involves perusing Facebook posts from people we didn’t like in high school anyway.

An anytime fun list presents an alternative. What easy, low-energy activities can you do at any time and that you’d enjoy more than Twitter? Ideas might include jigsaw puzzles, reading poetry, taking a soak in the tub, coloring, flipping through coffee-table books on home design, texting friends, etc. When you make this list, you can then figure out how to keep necessary materials handy (e.g., visiting the library every three weeks to check out those coffee-table books). When you realize you’ve got a free 15 minutes, you can pull something from this list and immediately start enjoying that time.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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