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Yes, Lists Are Still the Best Productivity Tool — if They're Done Correctly

Updated on December 16, 2016

Multitasking is so common that it's often difficult to keep track of the many events, tasks, and errands on our plates. To-do lists and calendars have always served as functional organizational tools, yet most do little to inspire productivity.

One new craze may revolutionize how people keep track of their lives: the Bullet Journal. The concept behind the notebook-turned-company created by digital designer Ryder Carroll is an amalgam of a diary, to-do list, calendar, and wish list meant to make people more productive and focused.

More traditional to-do lists can be effective, too. What matters most is being realistic and mindful about the tasks listed.


Bullet Journals Amp Up Productivity

With the Bullet Journal, Carroll created a journaling process that combines icons, formatting, and organizational rules. The strategy follows a specific format and flow, which may take time to grasp. For instance, arrows, X's, and bullets signify specific actions next to certain list items, making it easy for users to glance at the page and remember tasks.

Despite its specific methodology, Bullet Journaling is flexible enough that you can make it work for you. Some include sketches and pictures, and others use it like a scrapbook and paste in mementos.

Fans of the Bullet Journal, including the 4 million people who have watched Carroll's how-to videos on YouTube and the company's website, say it helps boost productivity and reduce stress by freeing up mental space and simplifying life. And some appreciate the return to an analog system after being overwhelmed by digital productivity tools.

Why Your Task List May Be a Productivity Killer

While many people are turning to the Bullet Journal as a new and improved way to keep track of tasks and goals, any method of creating a to-do list will do. It's what's on the list that matters.

Setting unrealistic expectations is the ultimate motivation killer. An ideal list takes thought and effort to write. It may be tempting to jot down every single task you wish to accomplish in a workday, but looking at an unfinished list at the end of the day feels overwhelming and deflating.

Be realistic when crafting lists. If you have multiple events or meetings one day, it may be difficult to accomplish a litany of desk tasks. This is something management should always keep in mind.

You may want employees to have high aspirations of accomplishing as much as they can each day, but setting goals that are too ambitious can decrease productivity and damage employee morale. People tend to be more motivated by incremental accomplishments.

Focus on Achievable Goals

To-do lists full of realistic goals that can actually be achieved offer emotional and psychological benefits — most importantly, motivation and productivity.

For years, I have completed daily lists with my goals, and I expect each employee who directly reports to me to do the same. Here are three methods for ensuring to-do lists benefit your team:

1. Create goals to guide your employees' day.

Accomplishing goals provides people the sense that they are in control of their daily lives. It's easier to feel more confident knowing which tasks you have to tackle each day.

Create goals that are SMART. This acronym can take on many different meanings as it applies to an individual's specific goals. For example, S may mean "specific" or "significant." M could mean "measurable," "meaningful," or "motivational." A could mean "attainable," "acceptable," or "action-oriented." R might stand for "realistic," "relevant," or "results-oriented." And T may refer to "time-based," "trackable," or "tangible."

Our goal-setting system sets a clear end to the workday, which instills a sense of control. While it isn't always possible to completely shut down at 5 p.m., I don't want anyone to burn out.


2. Create tomorrow's to-do list today.

Checking items off a to-do list creates an intrinsic sense of satisfaction. Research shows that even when people experience small feats of success, their brains release dopamine, which is tied to pleasure, learning, and motivational receptors. This triggers people to repeat the actions that made them feel so great.

I require my team to complete to-do lists at the end of the day with goals for the following day. This is a productive and psychologically rewarding task. I ask them to write a W on their calendars for the days they completed or nearly completed their lists.

This may sound like a small thing, but so much of the work can get mundane or even overwhelming. Tasks can seem endless, so it's essential to create a way to declare victory over it.

Burnout happens when people are unable to achieve goals every day. After several days in a row of not meeting (or even coming close to meeting) goals, it's time to make some adjustments to the goal-setting process.


3. Start with the hardest task first.

When people are productive, they feel a sense of ownership, and that leads to happiness. Being productive allows people to concentrate on other aspects of their lives, like health, relationships, and creativity. It can also make them more financially successful.

I’m a big believer in doing the hardest thing on your list first. When you have a long list of tasks, it's common to avoid the most difficult or time-consuming tasks at first. But those are usually the ones that matter most, and tackling them head-on leads to better overall productivity.

When my team members walk into the office at 8 a.m., their to-do lists for the day are already done. This forces them to focus and immediately start working on what needs to be accomplished.

To keep up productivity, I require team members to write weekly reports about the goals they set and what they accomplished. I read them all on Sunday night and make a list of questions or problems I have to address on Monday.

A common mistake in list-making is having goals that are too large or too vague cluttering up the list. It's OK to have one big goal, such as increasing profits, but it needs to be broken down into measurable, actionable items.

Whether you choose to embrace the Bullet Journal craze, use a productivity app, or stick with an old-fashioned to-do list, make sure the items on your list are realistic and attainable. You'll quickly see your team's productivity and motivation levels rise.

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