How to create a to-do list that helps you get tasks accomplished

Making an effective to-do list can be like drawing a picture — some days you produce a great work of art and other days you make something only suitable for the trash. Obviously, the goal is to produce 365 pieces of great art a year.

Last year, in the Unclutterer Forums, 14 members had a wonderful discussion about how they make realistic to-do lists. Here are some of their helpful suggestions:

toberead: I keep a couple of different To Do lists. One is for tasks that I must do today. Another one is for tasks that I have to do this week (or this month, etc.) That way, I’m reminded of things that I need to do sometime soon, but they don’t clutter up my daily To Do list.

Amber: … Set [a] timer for 10 minutes and in that time, write down (or type) all of the things you need to do that day … [Then,] go through your list and rank items according to importance, starting with the most vitally important. Things that absolutely MUST get done that day get a ranking of “1” so go through your list and rank those first … Now rank the least vitally important items – things that could be postponed for weeks if need be. Rank those as “5”s … Now rank everything else according to how they rate in importance between “1” (must be done today) and “5” (can wait several weeks if need be) … Once everything is ranked, you have your to-do list for the day. Start with the “1”s and work your way through to the “5”s.

CaySwann: I like to use http://todoist.com for brainstorming lists, color-coding them, and setting tickler reminders for occasional repeating tasks. I use a gadget on my iGoogle page to show me my Todoist on my home page. It makes changing a deadline easy, and sorting and color-coding simple.

Lilliane P: I read years ago to put only the six most important items for the day on your daily list. This is manageable (esp. if large items have been broken down into manageable actions). Then, keep a running list of things to do that are waiting in the wings, so to speak.

Deb Lee: … pick the TOP ONE or TWO things that MUST to be done on THAT DAY.

Be realistic:

  1. How long will it take you to accomplish each task?
  2. Are there multiple steps to completing each task? How long will it take to do each step?

Priorities are typically driven by:

  1. Time (e.g., pick up the kids by noon)
  2. Money (e.g., deposit $$ to pay a bill <-- this one's time & money; get $$ that's owed to you)
  3. Sentiment (e.g., spend quality time with your favorite person)
  4. Combination of two or more of the above

Spend a few minutes figuring out if the task is driven by a particular constraint and that will help you to decide which one to tackle first.

Check out more to-do list ideas in the Forums, and join in the conversation there or in the comments to this post. I’m eager to read how everyone manages his list.

Four steps to uncluttering your schedule

  1. Lose your calendar.
  2. Recall very little from your lost calendar.
  3. Have people in your life who are laid back and won’t send you reminders about your upcoming engagements with them.
  4. Don’t call anyone to see if you have upcoming engagements planned.

Obviously, these four suggestions are a joke. You should always keep a copy of your calendar — a daily backup for a digital calendar and a regular scan/copy of a print calendar — so a situation like this would be avoided.

However, I think we can all recall a time in our lives when we wished we could lose our calendars. We feel so overwhelmed by our obligations that we long for a way to be set free of obligations without any guilt.

Instead of chucking your calendar out the window, the next time you feel overwhelmed by your schedule try these steps to alleviate some stress:

  1. Say “no” to as many future offers as possible until you feel things are becoming manageable again. You’ll need to say “yes” to things that keep you out of jail and from being fired, but most everything else can temporarily be put on hold. You’re also free to change your mind, just remember there is much less stress involved with changing your “no” to a “yes” than having to back out of something you’ve already committed to.
  2. Review your schedule and see if there is anything you can gracefully back out of without much guilt or repercussions. Then, cancel the obligation. At this point, it’s probably best not to reschedule.
  3. Review your schedule and see if there are any appointments that can be moved to a better time. An early morning appointment might be more manageable as a lunch meeting.
  4. Identify the obligation on your schedule that is causing you the most dread, and make a plan to eliminate or reduce the stress surrounding it in the future. Knowing that something you dislike will be minimized in the near future often makes it easier to address in the present.

None of these steps will completely eliminate stress, but hopefully they will help to reduce it to a manageable level. Once you feel that things are back under control, you can start to say “yes” to non-essential obligations again, if that is what you wish to do.

Unitasker Wednesday: Moustache Egg Mold

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Oh, Urban Outfitters, can you please let us know when someone might need their eggs to be shaped as a mustache?

I’ve called a few of my hipster friends, and even they can’t figure out when they would demand their eggs to be shaped as a mustache. So, why does the world need the Moustache Egg Mold?! (And why use the British English spelling for the product name? Do hipsters prefer buying objects with British English spellings?)

Maybe Unclutterer readers can come up with circumstances when someone could need their eggs shaped like a mustache and share them in the comments. Let’s get creative, people!

Thanks go to reader LHS for sharing this adorable, yet confusing unitasker with us.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

The state of your desk likely influences perceptions of your professionalism

One of the columnists who writes with me over on RealSimple.com tipped me off to an interesting survey produced by the staffing firm OfficeTeam. OfficeTeam interviewed human resources (HR) managers and asked them:

How does the neatness of an employee’s desk or office affect your perception of that person’s level of professionalism?

The results of their survey found that 83 percent of respondents said that desk and office neatness affects their perceptions of employees. Eighteen percent said it “greatly” affects their opinions, and 65 percent said it “somewhat” affected it. Only 17 percent of respondents said it didn’t affect their perceptions at all.

What does this mean? If you work in a traditional office environment, it’s statistically likely to assume that the state of your desk and office is influencing HR’s opinion of your professionalism. If an HR representative sits in on discussions regarding hiring, firing, layoffs, raises, and other aspects of your job, keeping a clean desk might be in your best interest.

Make your own guitar picks

Do you play the guitar, bass, or mandolin? Do you have old membership cards cluttering up your wallet? If so, the Pick Punch might be a useful tool for you:

I’ve always thought picks were ridiculously expensive for what they are. Additionally, I always seem to need one. Making your own picks from recycled membership cards just makes a lot of sense to me. If we would have had one of these when my husband and I first started playing picked instrument, we could easily have saved hundreds of dollars. A simple, high utility, uncluttered solution for people who play picked instruments.

Image via Pick Punch.

Scientists find physical clutter negatively affects your ability to focus, process information

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published the results of a study they conducted in the January issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that relates directly to uncluttered and organized living. From their report “Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex”:

Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

Or, to paraphrase in non-neuroscience jargon: When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy …” Even though you might be able to focus a little, you’re still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. The annoyance also wears down your mental resources and you’re more likely to become frustrated.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong — if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

If you don’t subscribe to The Journal of Neuroscience, I recommend heading to your local library to read the full article. Also, thanks to the reader who brought this research to our attention.

Moving: Change of address notifications

Changing your address when you move can sometimes feel as exhausting as unloading a moving van full of boxes. Having an organized checklist of all of the institutions and individuals you need to notify can reduce some of the stress you’re feeling and help to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Using these lists as a guide, create a list tailored to your specific needs.

Two weeks before your move you’ll need to call your utility companies to set dates to end your service at your old place and subscribe to utilities at your new place. These utilities are usually:

  • Electric
  • Water
  • Gas
  • Telephone
  • Cable and internet
  • Sewer
  • Postal service
  • Trash collection
  • Regular home care service providers (lawn care, snow removal, etc.)

Then, once you’ve arrived at your new place, the adventure will begin to notify individuals, government entities, companies, and organizations of your address change. If you drive, always start your address change process by notifying the Department of Motor Vehicles. In some states, you have less than a month to update your records. After the DMV, I recommend setting a goal to make five notifications a day. You won’t feel overwhelmed when you do only a little bit each day, and you’ll be done in less than two weeks.

By no means is the following list a comprehensive one, and not all groups on the list may apply to you, but it’s possible you’ll need to change your address with the:

  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Post office (if you didn’t take care of it with your utilities)
  • Bank (and don’t forget to order new checks)
  • Voter registration
  • Human resources and payroll where you work
  • Magazine subscriptions
  • Insurance companies (auto, home/renters, life, workers comp, etc.)
  • Doctors offices
  • Schools (yours/your kids)
  • Cell phone company
  • Credit card companies
  • Loan companies
  • Personal and professional clubs, licensing boards, organizations, and memberships with benefit plans (like AAA for your car)
  • Places of worship
  • Gym memberships
  • Lawyer
  • Financial advisor/investment firms
  • Accountant
  • Possibly the IRS (Form 8822), especially if between filing and receiving a return/refund or if you pay quarterly taxes
  • Regular deliveries (such as restaurant delivery places or CSAs)
  • Friends and family

Many businesses, organizations, and government entities now will allow you to change your address online. Save yourself some time by checking out a group’s website before hitting the streets.

Also, be sure to check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Cupmen Instant Noodle Figure
    The Cupmen Instant Noodle Figure rests on the lip of your steeping noodles and tells you when they’re “done.” In three minutes, the plastic, heat-sensitive Cupmen Figure transforms from a little blue guy into a little white guy. When he’s all white, you know your noodles are ready to eat. Yay, unnecessary plastic doodads!
  • Ask Unclutterer: Magazine clutter
    Reader Nia: “I am especially guilty of magazine clutter. Why am I unable to throw away magazines? It’s seriously painful for me to get rid of them. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with is that the magazine has done such a good job marketing themselves (all of them have, mind you) that it embodies a lifestyle and not just a pack of paper.”

2009

Ask Unclutterer: How to break up with stuff after a breakup

Reader Ellen submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I recently ended a very long-term relationship and I have no idea what to do with the gifts I was given over the last ten years. Some of them (CDs, books) are impersonal and I still use and enjoy them, but other items – some engraved, some very expensive, some very romantic – are causing problems.

I can’t use them without feeling upset. I can’t give them away, as most of them are personalized or unique in some way. Most are made of materials that can’t be recycled. It feels wrong to put an item worth a hundred dollars into the trash.

Do you have any creative suggestions? Or any advice on new ways to think about the problem?

I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t have anything in your life that you don’t need or love, so I don’t see a reason to keep any of the items that make you upset. If it makes your stomach churn when you see it, this is a pretty good sign that it’s time for the item to go.

Gifts that have been engraved can be polished clean by a jeweler. I suggest having these engravings buffed out and then selling these items. Even carvings on wood can be sanded out by a woodworker. Buy something you want with the revenue, invest it, or donate it to charity.

Jewelry stores are also great locations to dispose of jewelry because they can melt down pieces and refashion them into new pieces you want. I actually took diamonds from two different pieces of jewelry boyfriends gave me and had them made into earrings. One diamond had to be tweaked with a little to match the other, but it wasn’t very expensive and it was worth it.

If you’re not interested in having a piece of jewelry refashioned, you can consider selling or swapping it on the site ExBoyfriendJewelry.com.

I’d also consider donating objects to charity or to someone in need, if appropriate. You might not yet have the nerve to sell something, but a homeless person might not have any issue with walking those diamonds into a pawn shop and getting money for a week’s worth of food and some clothes.

Be sure to check out the comments for even more ideas. I’m sure our readers will also have great ideas for you. Thank you, Ellen, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Workspace of the Week: Serene home office

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Zach’s setup:

This office instantly caught my attention because the majority of the external peripherals are identical to the ones I have. After looking at it for a minute, I realized that it does a nice job of keeping clutter at bay. The cable control is solid, the rolling file cart holds necessary supplies so they don’t take up space on the desk surface, and the arrangement of the artwork is even calming. I strongly suggest you go to see the original image in the Flickr pool because the notes on it are extensive. Thank you, Zach, for your terrific submission to our pool.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

SimpliFried roundup

In the last few weeks on our sister website Simplifried, we’ve tackled many yummy and useful cooking topics. Check them out and weigh in if you’re interested:

Confused about how to boil water? Is your refrigerator running? Shouldn’t you go catch it? Head on over to Simplifried to have all your cooking related inquires answered, or follow @simplifried on Twitter.