How to actually get stuff done (or the magic of lists)

We have touched on this before. For some of us starting something is the hardest thing. For most of us, the problem is getting it finished. Either way, there is a very simple tool which will keep you moving forward – from beginning to end. Yes, it is the humble To Do List. However managing one isn’t always so simple.


To Do Lists get a bad name because they seem so mundane and downright basic. Surely, changing the world can’t depend on a To Do List? Actually, it could if you manage your list right. It may be the right tool you need to get you to finish what you started. The secret with lists is to enjoy that moment when you tick off things you have done – and giving yourself as many chances to do it as possible. Each of those tasks is a step towards your goal; the more ticks, the closer you’re getting towards your great ambition. Here are our five tips for getting the best out of the most cost effective time-management tool you’ll ever need.

  1. To Do Lists are for Tasks (not Goals or Projects). A Task is a single, specific thing that has to be done. It should not depend on anything else other than one person completing it. We run into problems when beginning a task involves others or has complex implications. Those task never get crossed off the list because they are either Projects (lots of tasks working together to achieve something) or a Goal (a bigger ambition that need to be broken up into separate Projects and Tasks).
  2. Be SMART with Tasks. If you haven’t heard of the SMART acronym before, here we go… keep your Tasks specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed. For example, use names of people or specific departments, rather than a more generic ‘Call Council about grants’. Who are you calling? What’s the name of the department? What kind of grants are you asking about? If any of these are unknowns, add an extra Task to your To Do List: ‘Find out who is responsible for Grants at Greenwich Council’. I might help if you imagine you may have to leave your list for someone else to do – would they have enough information to be able to complete it?
  3. A Day Is Enough. To manage an effective To Do List, nothing on it should take more than a day to complete. That’s a figure that works for me because I look at my To Do List at the end of each day. I cross things off and priorities the remaining Task for the following day. It give me the feeling of achievement by having done something today. Tasks like ‘Ask Brian to pick up the bikes from Halfords’ or ‘Recce Wiston Hall’ are doable in a day. However, ‘Edinburgh weekend’ or ‘Paint the house’ might not get completed within 24 hours.
  4. Beware of your expectations. Often we can’t cross things off the list because we’ve written them with expected outcomes which don’t happen the way we would like them to. For example, be careful about using terms such as ‘Agree timescales’ and ‘Confirm layout’ when writing your To Do List. Do you really mean “I expect them to agree with my timescales” or “Confirm my layout”? Although the Task would be complete, if it hasn’t gone your way, you won’t enjoy that feeling of ticking that one off your list. You might also be tempted to keep working on it until you get your way. Stick with very clear, impartial tasks and you’ll keep moving forward.
  5. Start with the ones you don’t like. There will be Tasks we don’t really want to do – usually admin, laundry and working out. Do those Tasks first. Get them out of the way so you can have a more fluid day. If you find it difficult to go to the gym, do it first thing in the morning, rather than putting it off again after a ‘hectic’ day. Prepare for it the night before if you have to. Get your trainers out and sweat pants ready before you go to bed so you have no excuse in the morning.

It is remarkable how using a simple list can help improve your productivity. It really isn’t rocket science. If you are struggling with getting something done, give it a try. Put it on a To Do List. Make it visible on a wall, or handy on your phone. If after two days you haven’t completed it, consider whether it’s more than just one Task and break it up. If after a week you haven’t completed it, ask yourself if you really want it done or whether someone could do it for you instead.

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