How to Write Effective To-Do Lists
Do this to be able to look at a task once and know what you need to do
I've been writing a lot recently about taming your to-do lists. My focus has been on learning how to do less, but there's another important way to go about taming your to-do lists that's as simple as learning how to write them in the first place.
This became clear to me as I was reading Dustin's post Back to Basics: Your Task List over at Lifehack.org. It's a quick but very good read.
One of the best insights from the post is about including all of the relevant information needed to complete the item in question. Think of the difference between writing "Get Details on Project X" and "Call Susan at 555-1111 about Project X by Wednesday." The latter links the action with the project it belongs to quite nicely and allows you to complete the action as a stand-alone item, whether you write it down, put it into your phone or a computerized task-management system, or email it to yourself.
I learned to do this from reading Merlin Mann's post GTD: Project Verbs vs. Next-Action Verbs. In that post, he talks about how to determine whether you've got a project or an action, but I took it as a primer on how to write to-do lists.
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The table below, reproduced from the aforementioned post from 43Folders, sums up most of what you need to know to start writing good to-do lists.
Project Verbs Finalize Resolve Handle Look into Submit Maximize Organize Design Complete Ensure Roll out Update Install Implement Set-up
Next-action verbs (Task Verbs) Call Organize Review Buy Fill out Find Purge Look into (Web) Gather Print Take Waiting for Load Draft Email
The easiest way to implement this technique is to memorize, print, or write this list down and keep it close to you. When you start listing, try to start a task or project with one of the verbs listed above. For tasks, include phone numbers, individual people, email addresses, and deadlines so that you don't have to refer to other information to complete the tasks.
It takes a bit of mental reprogramming, but it pays for itself very quickly when you notice that your lists order themselves nicely and you can look at a task once and complete it without having to backtrack.