My Productivity BFF: The Checklist

One of my trusted productivity strategies is to streamline and standardize routine activities as much as possible. Standardization minimizes the decision-making time spent on repetitive activities that do not merit too much brainpower.

Keep your to-do list short to avoid frustration.

Checklists are an invaluable tool for making sure that no task, step, or appointment is left behind. By using them, I avoid wasting time trying to remember the action steps required to complete and activity or the ingredients for that dish I prepare only once during the holidays.

Coming up with functional checklists requires focused work, though.

  • Decide what type of list is the most appropriate for your goal.

  • Figure out the steps or items that need to be listed.

  • Use it and make the necessary adjustments to ensure it serves your purpose.

One of the many benefits of this tool is that it is entirely customizable and can be rearranged according to your changing needs.

I rely on a few different checklists to keep me organized:

The To-do List. This is my most basic list. Here I jot down pending tasks as they come to mind, in no particular order or due date. This list has to be refined frequently for a few reasons:

  • To make sure no pointless tasks have made their way into the list. If one has, delete it!

  • To ensure that I'm on top of my priorities.

  • To add new tasks that come to mind.

  • To ensure that it is realistic.

The goal is to have somewhere convenient where to write down ideas or actions on the spot before they leave my mental hard drive forever. I deal with the where, when, and how later.

The To-Do List has fans and has critics. Critics claim that it leads to frustration because it may quickly turn into a list of never-done tasks. And they may be right. The secret is to keep the list realistic. When an item has been listed for more than a couple of days, ask yourself, "Do I really need to do this?" If yes, but you have been procrastinating, try breaking that task into small action steps. Be strategic about what you keep on the list.

The Planner. Once my To-Do List is refined, and priorities are in order, I transfer the items to my planner (digital or paper) with clear deadlines. Planners are a visual system to organize tasks by allotting time to each one. It's like placing the right puzzle piece in its proper spot in the puzzle that is your calendar. Generally, tasks that do not have a time slot or deadline are rarely completed.

The Recurrent-Tasks List. This list will take you some time to put together, yet once it’s done, it will save you a ton of time -and maybe money. One day, I realized that it was useless to spend time thinking about what to pack every time I traveled. After all, the basic stuff is always the same: phone charger, book, toothbrush… And even if those were everyday items, most of the time I would forget one. Thus, I decided to come up with a Packing Checklist noting all the basics I needed for any trip, and I refer back to it every time I pack. My checklist includes essential toiletry items, accessories, medications, electronics, and personal flight comforts I want with me on a trip.

Other Recurrent-Tasks lists may be a grocery shopping list or office supplies list.

The Home-Maintenance List. How many times have you spent time trying to remember when the last time your A/C unit was serviced or your air filters were replaced? These are routine home maintenance tasks that happen a few times during the year, but it’s usually hard to remember when. There are a few ways to go about this. Some people like to make a list of all these maintenance tasks, group them together and do them all on the same week or weekend. The caveat is that not all of them need to be dealt with with the same (or similar) frequency. Your lawn may need to be fertilized every couple of months, but the water filter cartridge needs to be replaced once a year.

Another way is to keep a list of all the maintenance tasks you need to take care of throughout the year with their due dates and refer back to it every few weeks to be on top of everything home-maintenance related. An even easier way is to create a digital list and set up reminders on your phone. This will make your life so much easier and your lawn so much greener!

The Habit-Tracking List. When trying to create a new habit, accountability is vital. You need a way to measure your progress, and a Habit Tracking List is your go-to tool for that -on paper or in an app. If you already keep a bullet journal, you could incorporate your tracking list there. If not, keep your list (be as creative as you want!) in a place that’s easy to see and mark your progress regularly. Benjamin Franklin created a weekly checklist to track the 13 moral virtues he wished to cultivate. He listed the days of the week horizontally and the 13 habits vertically as you would do in an MS Excel table. Then, he checked each day he accomplished each one of those 13 virtues. Very basic, yet very useful.

The How-To List. Imagine wanting to prepare a fancy Christmas cake every year and each time having to spend time trying to remember (accurately) a long list of ingredients, quantities, oven temperature, and cooking time. Daunting! Cooking recipes are checklists too. They are a step by step of ingredients and instructions to prepare that yummy cake. How-To Lists are designed to make sure you follow all the steps needed to reach the desired result when cooking or when tackling another activity, such as replacing a water filter cartridge. Depending on the task, you may even find the list you need online (that's true for kitchen recipes, instructions, and makeup tips, for example.) Follow the steps, get the result you want.

The Daily List. My shortest list. Every morning before the busyness starts, I take a few minutes to reflect on my day and think about what two or three things I want complete that day to make me feel productive eight or nine hours later. No doubt, I'll do more than two or three things, but there are always two or three that have the highest value and hence the highest reward. My suggestion is to keep it short, no more than three items. Make your Daily List first thing in the morning and say, "Today is the day!" You'll feel so much better when you look back at the past nine hours and realize that you accomplished what you had been putting off for days.

Here are other lists you may find useful:

  • Subscriptions List: This is a list of all those subscription you have with expiration dates. By keeping this list, you'll be aware of the automatic renewal dates and decide whether to renew or cancel your subscription.

  • Fun List: Keep a list of all those books you want to read, movies you want to watch, and restaurants you want to visit. Next time you are driving around town trying to decide where to have a nice lunch, just check your list and voilà!

  • A List of 100 Dreams: After listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Before Breakfast with Laura Vaderkam, I started listing all the things I would like to do whenever I have the chance. From having coffee with a special friend to traveling to an exotic place, this list includes everything I would love to do, no matter how wild or conventional it may seem now.

Your lists must be functional and realistic.

Now that you have created the checklists needed to better organize your time, it's time to use them! This may be more challenging than you think. You need to develop the habit of referring back to your checklists frequently. A masterful checklist that’s kept in a drawer and never looked at again will never work. If your Habit Tracking List is about drinking more water, keep the list by your fridge or wherever you refill your water bottle so you can record your progress accurately. If you chose to create a Home-Maintenance List, make sure to keep it by the door so you can take a look at it every time you leave your house. Going digital? Set up alarms and reminders on your phone.

Do you rely on checklist like I do? What types of checklists do you use to keep you on top of what you need to do? I would love to hear about your go-to tools to manage your time efficiently. Please comment below!

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