List management doesn’t really sound sexy, but it’s an important skill if you want to achieve your goals and bring in at least some order into our chaotic lives.

Umberto Eco once told in the interview:

“The list is the origin of culture. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”

When we really struggle to express ourselves, we create lists. It’s a simple habit that can make us more productive and happy as putting goals on paper and categorizing information helps us envision our goals more clearly and measure the results.

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By making lists we try to pack all the madness and ambiguity of life into some structured form of writing. Here are some tips to help you make better to-do lists:

1. Break big projects into smaller tasks

Did you know that we have sort of in-built reminder system in out head that nags about unfinished tasks? It’s called Zeigarnik effect and it actually explains some other things about ourselves like earworms — when a few catchy song lines run through your brains even after it is no longer playing.

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While Zeigarnik effect may seem like a good thing, in reality - it’s not. It creates a disconnect between out conscious mind and unconscious minds. The unconscious mind gradually gets annoyed with the fact that he can’t plan how to finish the task and sends nags to conscious mind with reminders that you need to finish the task. That’s what often makes us frustrated and stressed out.

“To stay on top of your productivity, break each big project into small actionable to-dos you can accomplish each day while gradually moving to completing the whole thing” - says David Nazaryan from Digital Media Group. “Those should be small, very specific and non-conflicting steps you can take”.

Say, you are working on a new b2b marketing campaign for your company. You’ve got a lot of things at hand on your to-do list that could be vaguely listed as:

  1. create new promo materials
  2. order new business cards
  3. connect with new potential buyers and on and on.

To avoid your subconsciousness getting lost and nagging your brains, break all of this in simpler steps like:

  1. Research new design trends and find what you like (+ a list of blogs to check out)
  2. Go nag John, the designer and ask him what does he think of the design
  3. Write the texts
  4. Send everything over to John.

2. Prioritize like it’s nobody’s business

Sometimes, it seems like everything is super urgent and you put it onto your to do list (as your memory’s not enough) till it get’s just too many points long.

A while ago I’ve read about the experiment in Pentagon. One consultant who was hired to improve time management skills among the generals asked the group to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words (approx one Tweet!). Only one woman could accomplish the task and wrote:

“First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.”

In other words - prioritize until it hurts. Learn to say no to people demanding to do something like right now and stating objectively your decision. Surprisingly, most of them would say fine to your request.

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I had to learn prioritizing like crazy as I went freelance and you know, wanted to please everyone and be a fast and efficient freelancer doing things at no time. Soon enough, I realized if I continue to say “yes” to everyone all the time, I’ll get buried under piles or work I could never do good enough in such short time frame.

Multitasking may seem like a great skill, yet raw facts proved it does more harm to your brains than good, plus you are not getting more efficient anyway.

Prioritizing is what actually helps us to get more things done within a short time frame.

3. Always plan ahead

Here’s another great advice that is nearly 100 years old, but still works wonders. It was given to a group of managers in Bethlehem Steel company by Ivy Lee - efficiency guru of that time. Here’s what he told them to do:

  1. At the end of each day, write down 6 most important tasks to be done first thing on the next day.
  2. Prioritize the list. (it’s worth crossing off everything after 3 unless those a small tasks)
  3. Next day, start working on the first task and when that task gets completed, start working on the second task and so on.
  4. At the end of the day again, create the list for the next day, adding the unfinished tasks for that day to the top of the list.
  5. Do this for the next 3 months and check the results.

Yeah, that simple. But you know what? This strategy earned Bethlehem Steel so much extra income, that the owner sent Lee a check equal to some $600.000 today. And you can use this advice for free :)

4. Keep it real

There’s an ideal world where you follow all the rules and create ideal to-do lists from scratch. Yet more often we try to over-achieve and set unrealistic goals and expectations. Say, you set a goal to buy a house in a lovely suburb in there years, but the mortgage rates go insane or you split up with your partner etc. Or you think relocating your startup could be done in less than one month (right).

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Sometimes we’ll have to change our initial goals and adapt to the new circumstances. Although a to-do list can go infinite, our time does not. It’s important to match the tasks we demand from ourselves to how much time and efforts we can spend on them. That’s where “prioritize till it hurts” comes in handy.

Here’s a great example of Johnny Cash’s realistic and semi-efficient to-do list:

Bonus: Here’s a cool list of to-do apps rated & reviewed.