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Techniques for Making a Killer To-Do List

Since starting my co-op in Corporate Communications at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, I’ve learned a lot from my team. I’ve observed their business-casual fashion expertise, I’ve learned how to act attentive but maintain an informal tone in meetings, and I’ve become extremely adept at staying on top of my schedule.

I’ve also been working on refining my to-do list technique, once again taking cues from my team members. This week, I decided to ask a selection of the successful, hardworking people I work with every day about how they approach their to-do list, which tends to be pretty significant from week-to-week, and then apply that information to my own learning process. The way we work best depends on how our brain is wired, and to-do lists are no exception. Of course, everyone has a different style, and there’s no wrong way to make a to-do list. However, here are a few themes I noticed, all of which are great approaches to doing well at your job.  

The “In Your Face” Approach

This is the perfect technique for visual learners. Whether it’s writing everything down in a notebook or pasting a bunch of Post-its on your desk, those who favor this method prefer to have all their relevant tasks right at hand, sorted in order of priority. Advantages of this technique are that it’s colorful and puts all the important information at your fingertips. For example, if you’re running to a meeting, having a notebook that contains all your immediate tasks can definitely come in handy. Disadvantages are that it can make for a messy desk, and may make it more difficult to keep track of everything that needs to get done as your list starts to grow.

The Electronic Approach

This is by far the most organized method. While some of my colleagues type tasks into their outlook calendar and others keep a running word document of their to-dos, one person in particular embodies the perfect online to-do list technique by using an app called Asana. This app, which can be synced to your email, phone calendar, and so on, allows you to program your tasks by subject, due date, and project. You can also sync up with a team member if you prefer a collaborative approach. For the tech-savvy working girl, apps like this are the perfect solution, but don’t forget that it takes time to adjust to a new method!

The “Onion” Approach

I coined this term after observing that many of my colleagues keep two to-do lists, one “master list” that covers the entire week or month, and a small Post-it note that only includes the day’s priorities. Whether you prefer print or online, this approach is a great foundation for keeping track of everything that needs to get done. You might even want to take it a step further – one of my team members has a record number of four to-do lists, each encompassing a different length of time.

The Refreshed Approach

I made this distinction after observing that while many people prefer a long to-do list that they can continue to build on throughout several weeks, others like to start fresh every week. One of my colleagues prints out a to-do list each week that has a high-priority list built-in. If you’re going to take this approach, it’s best to type up your to-do list when you have some downtime on Friday afternoon, so as not to forget about any pressing Monday-morning tasks. On the other hand, if you’re going to maintain a running master list, you’ll still want to refresh every once in a while, probably when your to-do list exceeds a set limit or becomes impossible to read – whichever comes first!

The “Bucket” Approach

This method was common to almost everyone I talked to on my team. It’s natural to organize priorities into categories, whether those are specific people you report to, types of tasks (emailing, writing, etc.) or important dates. Organizing your to-do list into “buckets” that you can focus on a little at a time will be a likely improvement for whatever method you choose to pursue, whether you’ve already got a master list crafted in your Levenger notebook or you simply keep a running tally of priorities in your calendar.

It’s scientifically proven that writing to-do lists is good for productivity, no matter the method you use. Our brain tends to fixate on incomplete tasks, a phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect. Some professionals are extreme organizers with multiple color-coded lists, others work best with a simple smattering of Post-it notes, and still others fall somewhere in between. Whatever combination of the methods above you prefer, writing down what you need to get done is a surefire way to stay on top of your agenda. It’s very inspiring for me to be surrounded by so many different techniques every day – I can’t wait to continue refining my own method until I find the perfect fit for me.    

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Gwen Schanker


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