By Kari Miller
This is the season for list-making. Everywhere we see lists of the year’s best or worst in books, movies, music, restaurants, fashion trends, news stories, what-have-you. There are lists of the most popular, the most influential, the most original and the most unusual. There are the sad lists remembering celebrities who have died during the past year and the optimistic lists proposing resolutions for the New Year. Whether one finds these lists annoying, entertaining or thought-provoking, one thing is for sure – they are unavoidable.
This may be high season, but we live with our lists all year long. We have shopping lists, wish lists and bucket lists. And, if you are like me, you also have your to-do list, whether it is neatly recorded in a notebook, hastily jotted down on the back of an envelope (my favorite), entered into your smartphone or just floating around in your head. According to the experts, keeping a to-do list keeps us focused on what we need to do, helps us plan how to do it and reduces our stress levels by making us feel like we have things under control. The same experts also tell us that most people don’t do very well in actually completing the tasks on their to-do lists, or, to put it bluntly, to-do lists often do not work. Luckily, the pundits also offer insight into why our to-do lists are ineffective as well as advice for improving the outcome.
First, the list should not be too long. An unrealistic, overambitious list will only set you up for disappointment. Prioritize the items on your list and tackle the most important tasks first. Don’t clutter up your list with things that can be quickly done (just do them!) or with things that will happen anyway. You may want to make several coordinated lists, such as a master to-do list (this could be updated monthly), a must-do-today list and a weekly list. Uncompleted tasks from the daily list should be forwarded to a new list or reevaluated.
The tasks on the list should not be vague, complex or open-ended. Be specific. Large tasks can be broken up into manageable pieces which can be readily accomplished and crossed off. Instead of “learn the Widor Toccata” maybe “practice Widor for a half-hour today” or “work on first two pages of Widor” would be more useful. If you know when in the course of the day a task needs to be done or how long it will take, make a note of that on the list. But don’t allot things too much time or the dreaded procrastination factor might kick in!
Finally, learn to be flexible and self-forgiving. The most common reason for failure to get through the items on a list is simply the need to attend to other tasks – those unexpected, unscheduled things that pop up on a daily basis to make our lives full and interesting.