1. Consider using software such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote to streamline your note-taking.
With both Microsoft OneNote and Evernote you can sync your notes across devices. As an added tip, in OneNote pressing ctrl+1 will add a handy check box next to the line you are writing. Another good tip is to nest similar to-do items by “tabbing over” when writing the next line (see picture example).
Evernote is easier to use because the software is purpose-built for the task of writing to-do lists, however OneNote will offer you more flexibility and integration with other Microsoft products. Both products offer the ability to embed files such as sound recordings, however OneNote is more robust in this area.
2. Don’t forget to use old-fashioned sticky notes IN ADDITION to note-taking software (#1).
Just because the trend is towards digital note-taking doesn’t mean that writing notes by hand has outlived its use. I use keep a pen in my pocket and use sticky notes when it is not convenient to take out a note app or when I might need to make arrows or other drawings. Usually my daily to-do lists are done on sticky notes whereas my project to-do lists are done on note-taking apps (more on that in #3 below).
3. Classify your to-do list.
This tip is my “secret sauce” so to speak. Know what kind of to-do list you are writing. A Daily to-do is a list of tasks you want to complete during that day. A Project to-do is a list of sequential tasks that lead to the completion of a project. Finally, a Goals to-do is an overall listing of goals you have for a given time period. Some to-do lists will only plan the next few hours and some are meant as “reminders” and keep you focused throughout the year. Know your to-do list and you will, in fact, know exactly what you have to do and that is half the battle (the other half is work in case you were wondering).
4. Organize to-do items into “bite-size” tasks.
Don’t write “Finish Dissertation” or “Study for SAT” on a Daily to-do list. A good rule-of-thumb is to write tasks that you think you can finish in one sitting or LESS. Most of my tasks are about 30-40 minutes long and that gives me the option of finishing one or two before I take a break. When you take that break after finishing several to-do items, you will feel a much greater sense of accomplishment and feel much better about yourself by the end of the day.
5. Practice makes perfect – just do it!
When I first started making a habit of writing to-do notes, it took me awhile to finish my notes sometimes and I was left wondering “would it be a better use of my time just to skip writing the to-do and focus on the task itself?” Trust me, it’s not. My Freshman English teacher liked to use the phrase “verbal vomit” to describe the mindset you should take when generating ideas. Don’t worry about perfecting your to-do list. The only thing that matters is that you know what you are going to do NEXT. Try to finish out your day, but if circumstances change, you can adjust the to-do list accordingly. Sometimes, I don’t know exactly what order I am going to do my tasks. In that case I just list the tasks I want to do and write a little number next to the one I want to do first, second, etc. These days I can write a Daily to-do list in minutes and rarely will have to make edits later.
As you write to-do lists more and more you will become the sort of person who knows exactly what they need to do that day and will be able to make adjustments to “unexpected events” easily. This skill takes some time to develop, but the act of organizing your to-dos every day will teach you how to better organize yourself, and one day, maybe others.