A To-Do-List Method

The to-do list is a key tool for anyone striving for optimal productivity. A few months ago, I wrote about some strategies that can make for a stronger to-do list. That article focused on the traditional, single-column list — a vertical grouping of all your tasks. Today, I wanted to share a different method for creating a to-do list. It involves three columns and is a way to maximize the large and small windows of time you find throughout your day. I think of this list as the guide to making my schedule, both the schedule I create ahead of time and the minute-to-minute unfolding of my day.

The List

For this type of list, I use three columns. The idea is to group tasks by the amount of time they take to complete. The first column is for tasks that take five to ten minutes. It’s those little items that aren’t necessarily urgent but that we need to remember to check off. The second column is for tasks that take between ten and forty minutes, and the third column is for larger tasks that require longer than 40 minutes to complete.

Column 1: Mini-Tasks

The reason I group these together is so that when I find myself with a small pocket of unexpected time — a client’s call is a few minutes delayed or I finish up a project earlier than anticipated — I can put it to use. This column of tasks also comes in handy when you need a break from a larger task but still want to do something productive. Whenever you find yourself with a small window of time to fill, you can pop over to your list and pick a task from this column. Maybe it’s scheduling an appointment, cleaning up your desk, or replying to an email. Those small windows of “free” time throughout our days can really add up. This method ensures that they don’t go to waste.

Column 2: Medium Tasks

Like the mini-tasks, these 10-to-40-minute tasks are also great to have on hand for larger windows that open up. Perhaps you made space in your schedule for a 30-minute call and only ended up leaving a voicemail. Having this column laid out for you will help you efficiently change your plan without wasting time deciding where to pivot. It’s also the perfect way to break down larger goals into bite-sized pieces. Maybe you want to create a manual for your employees in the next three months. With a traditional to-do list, we might write ‘draft manual’. With no immediate time pressure or specific actionable steps, it can be easy to push that task to the bottom of the list. With this 3-column method, you can break that large task into smaller pieces. Maybe you add creating an outline or mapping out chapter 1 to your medium-task column. Then, you’ll be making progress towards this larger goal without having to muster up the motivation to dive into a massive project.

Column 3: Large Tasks

Some tasks don’t lend themselves to being broken down as easily as others do. For certain things, you’ll need to give yourself an hour and a half to complete the task. This will likely be the shorter list of the three, and it’s the one that’s most useful when planning out your schedule in advance. For activities you know will require large chunks of time, it’s best to schedule them in with clear timeframes. Whether you make a schedule for the week ahead, or you like to organize your day the evening before, use this column to determine the major pillars of your day.

 

Your to-do list should help you make the most of your time. Rather than a simple collection of all that you need to do, a to-do list can be a guide for shaping your day. When you make this kind of list, you can include everything from work-related tasks to personal goals. That way, when you find yourself with a window of time, you can assess how much time you have and where you’d like to direct it.

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