A calendar is for meetings and appointments, and a to-do list is for tasks. “I hope you have a monogamous relationship with your to-do list,” says Susan Pons, Productivity Consultant and VP of Clear Concept—meaning have just one, list lovers. She advocates checking that your tasks are aligned to your priorities. At work, this may mean your tasks align to the project that needs to launch next week. At home, it might be that you’ve made eating healthy a goal and buying produce at your local market is the task that aligns. Pons stresses that a successful to-do list is composed of the five Cs: Consolidate, Complete, Categorize, Consult and Commit.
Have one master to-do list. Pons suggests using Tasks in Microsoft Outlook or a tool like Wunderlist that syncs across devices. If you’re still in Post-it note mode, like I was, you’re never going to have all your to-dos in one place.
To get everything done, you need to know all the things you have to do. Take a notebook with you to every meeting. Draw a line to separate a page into two columns: Notes go on the left and to-do items go on the right. Add these to your master to-do list ASAP—or the likelihood of them being remembered will be quite low.
Break your master to-do list into categories. Organizing your child’s birthday party should go on your to-do list, but so should all the sub-tasks associated with putting on that epic Harry Potter event, like buying chocolate frogs for the loot bags. Personal and work items can go in the same list-making app but should be categorized separately. If you remember you need to make a dentist appointment for your kid while at work, just pop open your list and add it to the personal list.
At the end of each day, take inventory of your to-dos, joyfully ticking off what you got done and reprioritizing tasks. (Wunderlist has a lovely chime to reward you.) Give your calendar another glance, too. Depending on how many meetings you have, make a list of three to five priorities you feel you can accomplish the next day. (Be sure to start with the task you least want to do.) “Do that one first thing to get it over with,” Pons recommends.
In a perfect world, partners would commit to dividing the to-dos as equally as possible to avoid conflict and resentment. One partner, however, typically ends up being more of the doer. (Let’s just say we’re working on it.) Help younger kids make lists; older kids can write their own and eventually manage tasks for school and home. Be sure to teach them not to multi-task, says Pons. “Once you’ve circled what’s hardest and tackled that first, you can do the list in any order you want, but do only one thing at a time.”
A version of this article appeared in our September 2016 issue, titled “Master to-do lists,” pg. 4.