I’m a pretty productive person. I consistently write out my to-do list, set (and keep) deadlines, and end my day at inbox zero. Still, somehow I still felt like I was struggling to get things done. I set out to find a better way to make my to-do list work for me, and the secret is just too easy to keep to myself.
Let me start by sharing how my to-do list habits have evolved in my career.
- What to-do list?
My first post-college job was in customer support, and although it’s not a field I want to revisit, there’s definitely something nice about cyclical work and knowing what your responsibilities are, day in and out. My work routine was as simple as: answer call, solve problem, hang up, repeat. During this era, my now-beloved to-do list didn’t exist.
- This must be love.
Once I pushed forward in my career, taking a job as a recruiter for a startup, my job responsibilities got more complicated—and with them, I got an ongoing project list. Because I worked with a small team, my to-do list was long yet organized with project due dates, meetings on my calendar, and regular check-ins with my manager. I could start every day knowing exactly what needed to be done. I could check everything off. With my first project list, I discovered my deep to-do attachment. It was love—with some decidedly Type A tendencies.
- I let the to-do list into my life.
Today, I work for myself running an online business and the work freedom is one of my favorite perks. I can make my own hours, I schedule my own meetings, I can book a dentist appointment on a Thursday at 2PM if I want to…but running an online business also inevitably means irregular work flows and timelines and maintaining a complex schedule. With this job, my to-dos are more fluid—it’s basically a cascading list of my projects, ideas, and people I need to email for the past, present, and future weeks.
Here’s the thing about to-do lists: when it comes to simple tasks like “Email Molly about my reimbursement,” “Call Maria ,” or even, “Book flight to NYC,” just dropping them into a handwritten list or a note on your iPhone is enough. But when the projects start to get hairier, writing down “Marketing plan for Career Contessa” doesn’t fly.
Why? You probably already know the answer to that question. You’ll sit there at your desk, staring at the list, and rack your brain for where you should start and how you’ll finish. 10 minutes later, you’ll probably still be there. Then that 10 minutes turns into 20…
The “Next Step” Method
That brings me (as promised) to sharing the one thing I did to dramatically shift the way my to-do list works. In fact, it’s the difference between working on my to-dos and making them work for me. And I have Todd Henry, author and creator of the Accidental Creative podcast to thank. Henry’s answer is simple:
“For every to-do list item, write down a next step. Every time.”
When we’re talking about productivity and getting projects done, the biggest time suck is trying to figure out how to start. As you finish up one project, you’ll begin to consider how to start the next. Instead of making yourself determine that in the middle of your workday (when you’ve already got creative momentum), write down a next step (i.e. an “action item”) for every project on your list in advance.
Do it every time. If you need to put a project down to work on something else, write down the next step before you do. For any new projects, make sure you’ve created a next step for every item as you add it to your to-do list.
The next step method means your brain won’t have to spend as much time shifting gears between line items, and you’ll be able to save that energy for the creative thinking you need to keep moving a project forward. Believe me, your brain will thank you for adding this extra step.
And because Henry has even more tips, listen to his full podcast on Three Tactics for Unleashing Your Best Work.
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