I came across the idea of writing a must-do list in a fun and practical book I read recently, Get Your Shit Together by Sarah Knight. It’s simple: write your to-do list, featuring everything you need or want to do, then prioritise it and choose 2/3 top priority tasks each day to put on a separate must-do list.
How to use the must-do list.
Using the must-do list is simple in theory: you must get these tasks done today, no matter what, before tackling anything else on your to-do list. These are your top priorities.
If you have a clear demarcation between different areas of your life, such as work and home, you can make separate must-do lists for each one. However, be aware that having more than a couple of must-do lists will defeat the object and make the strategy less effective. It may also be a good idea to keep your work must-do (and to-do) list at work, to help maintain focus.
Personally, I combine work and everything else onto a single to-do list, from which I create a single must-do list each day. I work from home and my hours are variable, since I work around my mental health problems, so there is little distinction between my home and work life.
The tasks on the list should be small and specific — even if they are part of a larger project. Split large tasks into smaller ones until you have manageable chunks.
The must-do list forces you to focus.
You are faced with your top 2/3 priorities in small, manageable chunks and can ignore everything else on your to-do list. This is why it’s important to make a separate list, so you don’t get distracted by lower priority tasks as you consult your to-do list.
Many of us are guilty of procrastinating through busyness. We convince ourselves we are being productive because we are crossing items off our to-do list, yet high priority tasks are left unfinished while less important ones are completed. You then have the perfect excuse to claim you have no time to complete high priority tasks, because the crossed-off items on your to-do list provide evidence. You can ignore the fact that you wasted hours doing busywork instead of working on a major project.
The must-do list cuts through this bullshit. It makes you hyper-aware of your priorities and splits your goals into small tasks, so you are less likely to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the important stuff.
The must-do list helps you realise you have plenty of time and space to tackle your priorities.
You don’t need to panic about how you can fit in everything on your to-do list, because you are not trying to fit in everything. You only have to fit in your top priorities. This enables you to approach your most important tasks with a clear mind.
You can focus on what is most important to you and accomplish what you want.
Must-do lists improve productivity.
Once you complete your top priorities, you can tackle the next ones on your to-do list. By doing this, you are getting ahead and have the security of knowing the most important tasks are done.
Compare this approach to the conventional to-do list: you get distracted by minor tasks which you do because they take little time, not considering how those “insignificant” 10-20 minutes here and there soon add up to hours. This leaves you with inadequate time to tackle the most important tasks, so you fall behind and if you manage to work on your priorities, you are forced to rush. You figure it might be better to leave those tasks, which also tend to be the ones requiring the most energy and concentration, until tomorrow — when you add more items to your to-do list and start the whole process over again, playing catch up and racing without getting anywhere.
The ridiculous thing is, it’s easy to make time for lower priority tasks at the end of the day, whereas doing them first swamps your whole day. The must-do list approach also leaves you in a better frame of mind to tackle those lower priority tasks: you are less stressed and frazzled, because you know you have taken care of your priorities. You feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, which motivates you to complete a few more tasks instead of slumping in front of the TV all evening.
Must-do lists may seem counterintuitive, but they work.
I decided to try the approach because my chronic procrastination often meant I did nothing important for days, using my time and energy to complete meaningless tasks which I told myself “needed” to be done. I figured it would be better to get a couple of high priority tasks done, rather than several low priority tasks.
I discovered that writing a must-do list was far more effective than I had anticipated. Not only am I completing high priority tasks, but I’m also getting through many medium and low priority tasks.
Must-do lists have a huge psychological effect, setting you up to succeed. To-do lists, while useful, offer too many pitfalls which could lead to failure. Even when you prioritise to-do lists, you are faced with the distraction of other tasks on the list — a separate must-do list avoids this, while still providing you with the security of a to-do list.
The to-do list is a crucial part of this system, because it collates everything you need to remember. Trying to make must-do lists without the foundation of a to-do list doesn’t work. You can’t prioritise effectively unless you consider everything you need/want to do and trying to remember non-priorities creates a distraction. When you put everything on a to-do list, you don’t need to think about anything but your must-do list.
It’s early days, but I’m very impressed with the must-do list system. I’m more productive than I have been for months and less stressed. Give it a try — you might surprise yourself!