Hacking The To-Do List: How To Be More Productive With Your Time

Have you used to-do lists before?

Most of us probably have. In fact, most of us probably have an active to-do list somewhere with tasks beckoning to be checked off.  

But have you thought about why we use to-do lists?

At their simplest, to-do lists prevent us from forgetting tasks. Often these tasks come in the form of mundane tasks like buying stuff from the grocery store — lower priority tasks that aren’t top-of-mind and so we are afraid we might forget. 

But at more advanced levels, to-do lists become mission-critical tools that serve not only to remind, but also to boost productivity, which we can define as making more effective use of our most valuable resource: time. As a wise man once said:

“Time isn’t money. Time is much more valuable than money. We can always make more money, but we’ll never get more time."

Companies typically use some form of project management software to manage projects across multiple teams, and at the software’s core is essentially a giant to-do list that serves to assign/prioritize tasks, track progress and hold people accountable.

But imagine what would happen if a project manager didn’t invest the effort into creating a master to-do list of tasks and instead just assumed people would know what they were supposed to do? The likely result is many tasks that should have been done will not get done, and in the end, goals will suffer.    

My sense is that few will question the utility of the to-do list within a company context, but that the same is not true within the context of our individual lives.  

Perhaps this is because we tend to underestimate the complexity and number of moving pieces in our own lives?

But the reality is that we as individuals have many goals in life (both professional and personal) and many tasks that need doing if we are to achieve those goals.  

As project managers of our own lives, let’s stop assuming we know what we are supposed to do with our time, and instead let the humble to-do list be our guide.  

Below are a few tips/habits that I believe can help to upgrade the typical to-do list into a mission-critical, productivity-boosting, time-management tool.

1. Time tasks from start to finish

This doesn’t require a stopwatch or timer software. I simply record the start time next to a task (“845” for 8:45am), and when the task is completed or if I decide to take a break, I’ll simply subtract the start time from the current time (“1000” for 10:00am), and VOILA — I’ve figured out how much time was spent (“1h15m” for 1 hour and 15 minutes).

Yes, this does require some mental math, but to make subtraction super easy and because there rarely is a need to be accurate down to the exact minute, I typically round to the nearest 5 minute increment (“933” would become “935").    

The Benefits

  • With a timer lording over you, you will focus more and multitask less.
  • Over time, you will gain a better sense for how long tasks actually take you.   
  • Knowing exactly where your time went in a day enables you to answer the question: “Did I complete what I needed to get done, and if not, why?" 

2. Start anew each day

For to-do listers, there’s nothing more demoralizing than working off a stale to-do list with a buildup of unfinished tasks from before. The way to prevent this is to start a new list every morning. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should just ignore leftover tasks from the day before. You should first ask yourself: “Which of these tasks are still worth doing?” 

The Benefits

  • Starting each morning with a blank slate forces you to think about whether tasks fall under the “need”, “should” or “can” be done categories. Just because a task can be done doesn’t meet that is should be done. 
  • You’ll learn to eliminate tasks that don’t matter today.  

3. Identify at least one high-impact task each day

It’s easy to fill up a to-do list with the first tasks that come to mind. But what I like to do is ask myself: “What are the few high-impact tasks for today that if achieved, will mean that I had a productive day?” The tasks should be meaningful enough to make you feel proud of your achievement at the end of the day.

The Benefits

  • Thinking about how impactful/meaningful a task is forces you to think about where the task fits within the bigger picture.
  • For workaholics, defining for yourself what a productive day means will alleviate the guilt felt when you aren’t spending every waking moment working.  

4. Break down big tasks into smaller, bite-sized pieces

To get rid of to-do list tasks that seem to live on forever, try breaking up those tasks into more specific subtasks. For example, suppose you want to launch a website. Writing “Website” as a task isn’t super useful. Instead, try defining the subtasks that make up a website launch such as: “buy domain name on GoDaddy”, “choose hosting provider”, “finalize website mockups”, etc.

Also, note how the use of verbs such as “buy”, “choose” and “finalize” help to provide more specificity around what you actually need to do. 

The Benefits

  • Large, daunting tasks get broken down into smaller, more doable subtasks.  
  • Thinking about the steps required to complete a task prior to jumping in improves the likelihood that the task will get done. 
  • Completion times for smaller, better-defined tasks are easier to estimate.   

5. Go digital

There simply are too many advantages to going digital that it’s hard to view one's insistence on paper to-do lists as anything other than sticking to old habits. We are all aware of the saying “old habits die hard”; but we unfortunately tend to be less aware of when we are defending those very habits that deserve death. 

I create my daily to-do lists in Evernote, but there are plenty of other apps that work as well. At a minimum you’ll want to make sure that your to-do lists are stored in the cloud — making your lists accessible across all your favorite devices. For something that you rely on to manage your most important resource in the world, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of technology to have it available anytime, anywhere?

The Benefits

  • Your to-do lists will be synced across all your devices providing access anytime, anywhere.
  • Your phone is always on you so gone will be the days when you needed to look something up but realized you left your notebook at home. 
  • The many other benefits of digital include being able to do keyword searches, share and collaborate with others, and organize more efficiently via categorizing and tagging.

6. Include both work and personal tasks

Tasks on to-do lists tend to get done. Therefore, if you don’t include personal tasks on your list, those tasks are likely to be neglected. Also, by failing to keep track of both work and personal tasks, it’s easy to end up with large swaths of time that you can’t account for. 

When it comes to categorizing tasks, what I like to do is add a prefix in front of work-related tasks that help to categorize by project (e.g. tasks for ChinaBiohacker would begin with a “CB:”), while personal tasks do not have a prefix in front.  

The Benefits

  • Including personal tasks on your to-do list can help you balance between work and personal life. 
  • By including all tasks, whether work or personal, you gain a more accurate picture of where your time gets spent.  

7. Cheat days

If you’ve read my articles on low-carb dieting and burning fat, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of cheat days. The reason is simple: it’s better to be 70% compliant, 100% of the time than 100% compliant, 0% of the time. In other words, cheat days can help make habits more sustainable. Whether you are managing your diet or your time, both take considerable willpower, so it’s good to avoid burn out by giving yourself a break.

For me, my rule is no to-do lists on weekends. Of course as a result, my weekends consist of unstructured, go-with-the-flow days — the opposite of the type of productive days that to-do lists are meant to help achieve. 

The Benefits

  • Giving yourself a break allows you to recharge and can often lead to big breakthroughs.
  • For increased sustainability, it’s important to build in periods of noncompliance because 100% compliance is rarely sustainable.  
  • Only by taking a break from something will you then be able to evaluate its relative effectiveness.  


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