How to Write a More Productive To-Do List

Katie Sweeney

When I write my daily to-do list, I put everything—from “take a shower” to “call Mom”—down on the list. Why? Because I’m addicted to the satisfied and accomplished feeling I get from checking an item off said list. However, according to Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of a recent book about the science of productivity, featured on Inc., this is not the most constructive way to write a to-do list.

“Putting easy-to-achieve items at the top of your to-do list means you’re using that list for mood repair, and not to become productive,” summarizes Shana Lebowitz of Inc. “In other words, you’re grabbing onto the thrill of task completion, even if that task was ridiculously simple.” It’s also a bad idea to fill the list with nearly impossible tasks. Instead, Duhigg recommends making SMART to-do lists: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timeline.

Here’s how it works: Start by breaking a goal down into something more tangible, and specify what you want to do. Let’s say you want to start a fashion blog. First measure: How many posts and outfit photographs will you need to start this blog? Then see if you can actually achieve the posts. Do you have access to a photographer, or do you have a catalog of outfit images to choose from? Next, be realistic: You have a friend who has taken up photography, so you can ask her to snap some pictures. Lastly, create the timeline: Email your friend today and set up a shoot for later this week. The SMART process should take about a minute and is essentially a mini plan for accomplishing a task. While it may seem complicated at first, with practice, SMART will come more easily to you.

Learn more about Duhigg’s findings in his book Smarter Faster Better.

What’s your technique for writing productive to-do lists? Share with us in the comments!

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