8 to-do list productivity boosters

Small business owners will all know that feeling of task anxiety; that moment after you frantically write down a list of projects, tasks and due dates when you ask yourself, How am I going to get everything done? Is this possible?

It’s not because you have too many tasks to complete, it’s because you haven’t structured your to-do list effectively. Understanding how to prioritise, bundle, time manage and reflect will help you feel less overwhelmed and get you ticking off tasks quicker than ever before. Learn to structure your to-do list so it works for you, not against you.

If you want to achieve more, be less stressed, and reduce procrastination, follow these 8 steps to writing an effective to-do list.

  1. Task size – Is this task manageable? 
  2. MIT – Which tasks are most important? 
  3. Time – How long will these take to complete ?
  4. Satisfaction – Which tasks will give me satisfaction?
  5. Bundling – Which tasks can I bundle together? 
  6. Due dates – When are these tasks actually due? 
  7. Rewards – How can I reward myself?
  8. Reflecting – How can I be more productive?

Use: Staff productivity calculator 

Task size – Is this task manageable?

This is the biggest cause of dissatisfaction and procrastination. A task can be as small or as big as you want. It could be as small as ‘sharpen pencils’ or as big as ‘build website for client’, which is why it’s important to set manageable tasks. Large projects can often feel overwhelming, which is one of the leading causes of procrastination. If you have a large project that needs to be completed, break it down into manageable size sub-tasks.

Create sub-tasks that can be completed within 1-2 hours. If you think that one of your tasks will take longer than that – break it down.

For example, you have a brochure that you need to finish which you have estimated will take 6 hours to complete. Instead of writing ‘Finish brochure’ as a task, break it down into smaller sub-tasks, such as: write copy, mock up design, first page design and copy, second page design, etc. 

MIT Which tasks are most important? 

Most Important Tasks (MITs) are the tasks that need to be actioned first. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be completed but they need to be actioned. MITs often involve a third party and tend to have longer wait times in between actionable steps, such as receiving feedback from a client or placing an order which needs to be delivered next week. MITs are often quick and easy to complete but regularly fall victim to ‘I’ll do it later’. But when you don’t complete MITs, you put more stress on the project chain and the other people involved, which will eventually turn into more stress for you. Defining MITs allows you to focus your energy on the tasks that are most important instead of completing tasks that could have been done at a later date. 

For example: If you need feedback from a client on a project draft, the longer you take to supply the draft, the longer it will take for you to receive the feedback. This means you will have less time to make the necessary changes before the final due date of the project. 

Read: Engage staff and reduce turnover

Bundling Which tasks can I bundle together? 

Let’s face it. We often have to complete tasks that we don’t necessarily want to do. But we still have to do them. A good way to ensure you don’t rip your hair out when you have a list of boring or difficult tasks is to bundle them with something you love and enjoy. This will create a positive association with something you used to hate doing. Not only will you be more likely to complete the task, but you’ll also start to look forward to doing it.

For example, if you have to cold call 20 people every day, do it with something you love, like coffee! Don’t allow yourself to drink coffee until you have started or completed the task. It won’t be long until you start to look forward to the task you once hated.

Browse: Staff management 

Due dates When are these tasks actually due? 

Writing down due dates and times is the most important part of a to-do list. If you don’t have a due date then it’s just a list of things that you might do in the future – not very productive. Writing down when a task is due needs to be ingrained in your brain. And don’t set unachievable deadlines for your tasks. You’ll end up breaking them and is a great way to start a procrastination habit. If there are no repercussions for not meeting your deadlines then there is no incentive to complete them.

For example, if your deadline is Wednesday morning but you still haven’t completed it by Tuesday night, drink some coffee and block out all distractions because you’re not sleeping until it’s finished. The more excuses you make and the more deadlines you break, the less productive and motivated you will become. 

TimeHow long will these take to complete?

Time tracking is an essential aspect of productivity optimising. Tracking the amount of time it takes you to complete each task and project will help you stay focused on your daily goals and targets. You can then analyse your time expenditure at the end of the week/month to see what is taking up most of your time each day and whether your time is being spent wisely. This also helps reinforce step 1 by showing you if the tasks you are currently on should be broken down into a smaller sub-tasks.  Before you start a task, estimate the amount of time it will take and then – when you have completed the task – compare your actual time with the estimate. This will improve your ability to quote and gauge how long similar tasks in the future will take to complete. Utilising time-tracking can help you understand if you are spending your time effectively or whether you should focus on something different. 

For example, a freelance graphic designer might spend 30% of their time working on business card designs but it only accounts for 5% of their income. Whereas they might spend 40% of their time working on web design but it accounts for more than 60% of their income. Once the designer knows the value of their time through tracking, they may decide to prioritise web design work and even turn down jobs for business card design.

Satisfaction Which tasks will give me satisfaction?

We often have a few large projects and a number of smaller projects each week. Large projects will have bigger tasks that might require days of work and some smaller projects could be completed within an hour.  This is why it’s important to alternate between both small and large projects (assuming they both have similar deadlines). 

Completing tasks is satisfying and fulfilling. But working on a single task for the whole day can often be exasperating. To improve task satisfaction, it’s important to regularly complete tasks and projects. Arrange your daily and weekly tasks so that there is an even spread of achievable small projects in between the larger projects. This will ensure that when you finish work at the end of the day, you are able to show that you have completed X amount of tasks/projects rather than finishing the day feeling unaccomplished. 

For example, your main goal for the week is to create a video tutorial about your product. However this might take a few weeks to complete. Complement the video with an infographic or a blog post that you can get done sooner Regardless of whether you complete the video or not that day, at least you will have two other pieces of content that will provide you with satisfaction. 

RewardsHow can I reward myself?

If you’re reading this, it is safe to say that you have an endless list of things to do. And when you finish those things, you have more things, and then more. It’s a never ending battle of time and productivity. This can get disheartening, especially when one task leads into another and you have no time to enjoy the satisfaction of completing something. 

A wise manager once told me that work is like a massive flowing river and your tasks/projects are the water. No matter how many buckets of water you take out downstream, the water (work load) will keep flowing. 

Not rewarding yourself is a recipe for burnout. If you have achieved your daily or weekly tasks that you set for yourself, take a break and give yourself the recognition you deserve. You can also look at rewards similar to bundling. It can give you more satisfaction with the activity you are rewarding.  Write down your rewards in your to-do list so it reminds you to take some time for yourself – a shining light at the end of the task tunnel. 

For example, if you love to go surfing or play video games, tell yourself that you are only allowed to do so once your daily tasks are done. 

Reflecting How can I be more productive?  

The single biggest productivity hack is to be happy doing what you do. When we enjoy our work we are better focused, have more attention to detail and are more productive. However, it’s often hard to fully understand your productivity habits if you don’t analyse them. Here is how you can.

At the end of each day, answer the following four questions by writing them down in a notebook (don’t type them out, write them down):

  1. What did I enjoy doing today? 
  2. What did I achieve today? 
  3. What drained me of energy today?
  4. How will I better tomorrow? 

Spend 30 minutes to analyse your answers at the end of each week by copying them into a spreadsheet. The process of answering the same questions every day will provide you with your productivity patterns. This will allow you to improve your workflow for the following week – reduce the things that drain you of energy, do more of what you enjoy and become more efficient at achieving your tasks.

At the end of the month, ask yourself if you made an effort to improve your answers. Set new goals for the next month and stick them in a sticky note on your laptop or desk so you don’t forget to achieve them. 

Read: Improve employee innovation 

For example:

  • What did I enjoy doing today? Meeting new clients. I’m excited to start working on new projects.
  • What did I achieve today?  Sent email newsletter to our customers.
  • What drained me of energy today? Designing a Powerpoint presentation for next week’s meeting.
  • How will I be better tomorrow? Go to gym!

Lauren Crystal

Managing Director | Hassl

Lauren Crystal is the Managing Director of award-winning agency Your Creative and co-founder of the project collaboration tool Hassl, a web and mobile app that lets you manage your projects, files and communications from one platform. Hassl, chosen as Forbes Under 30 Summit’s ‘Ideas of the Year’ as well as 2019 Google startup participant, offers a simple way to manage teams remotely.

Lauren is a prominent speaker on creative growth strategies and team productivity, most notably speaking at Pausefest Summit, Property Council and TEDx Melbourne.