How to Master Your To-Do List

girl considering tasks

Putting off tasks can become a bad habit. Often, we put off tasks that we think will be boring, difficult, painful, or time-consuming. You might put off a task because you don’t want to do it, don’t like to do it, don’t have time to do it, or you might feel stressed thinking about it. It could also be a task that you don’t know how to approach, so it seems easier for you to avoid it. 

Clearly, there are many reasons why you might put off tasks, and find other things to do instead, but no matter the reason, the result is the same: you miss deadlines, get poor grades, disappoint yourself and others, and end up more stressed than you were before.  

Fortunately, whether you procrastinate or not is something you can control. Remember, when it comes to time management and task planning, you are your own bossThis applies to procrastination, too. 

Here are eleven (more!) tips to help you avoid procrastination and become the boss of your task list: 

1. Think about the benefits of having the task done.  

You’ll feel better without it hanging over your head. Think about the points you’ll have just for turning assignments in on time. Think about how nice a clean apartment or home will feel once the dishes are done. 

If you’re dreading a task because it’ll be difficult or boring, don’t think about the effort of doing it—think about the positive results of having it done.  

2. Enlist allies.  

You can leverage some outside pressure by recruiting your friends or family to be coaches and encouragers. Tell other people what you plan to do and when. Don’t depend on them as enforcers—it’s your job to manage yourself—but remember that your telling them makes you even more accountable. Knowing that others are expecting results from you may help motivate you to do the tasks you’re putting off.  

3. Assign hard deadlines to tasks. 

Free-floating tasks are procrastination parasites, hanging on indefinitely and sapping your energy as you say, “I’ll get to that when I have time” or “I’ll get around to it.” If you’re putting off a task because you don’t have a set due date, evaluate the task. Is it important? Is it something you truly want to do? If so, assign it a hard deadline. If not, it may be time to stop procrastinating, to let the task go, and to just take it off the to-do list and the calendar.  

4. Split up overwhelming tasks. 

Break down your larger projects into smaller steps. Figure out what the “next doable thing.” If you’re putting off a task because it seems just too huge and intimidating, divide it into smaller steps. Little by little, you’ll be able to progress. 

5. Don’t wait until the last minute. 

You’ve heard people say, “I do my best work under pressure!” But is this really true? You may feel extra-motivated when deadlines loom, and you may stay up all night to write a paper or cram for a test, but the sad fact is you can’t do your best work under those conditions. If you do need a deadline to motivate you, set your calendar and task list so your deadline is a couple of days before the real deadline. This will save you the frustrations of cramming last-minute edits or of running into last-minute technical difficulties. 

6. Set yourself up for success. 

Take steps to ensure that you have what you need to get the task done. Gather up the materials you’ll use. Silence your phone. Put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door. Go to a place where you know you won’t be distracted. Tackle tough tasks at the time of day when you feel most energized and ready. You really can take control of your environment to accomplish what you need to get done. 

7. Lower your fear level. 

If you’re facing a task that makes you nervous because you’re picturing all the horrible things that could happen if you fail, challenge that uncomfortable mental picture. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Chances are, the answer won’t be fatal or even irreversible. Once you cut the fear down to its real size, you can minimize the chances of failure by focusing your energy on the task at hand. 

8. Don’t wait to be in the right mood. 

It’s easy to say, “I don’t feel like doing it,” or “I’m just not in a creative place right now.” Don’t let excuses like that stop you. If you’re genuinely worn out and just don’t have the energy, take a break—go for a walk, catch a quick nap, eat a snack, talk to a friend—whatever it takes to help you reset. Then go right back and knock out that task. 

9. Eat a frog for breakfast. 

This sounds funny, but it can help to face your most dreaded task in the morning. Get your difficult task over with first thing in the morning and then get on with the rest of your day. After eating a frog (metaphorically), you’ll know that the hardest part is over, leaving you to enjoy the rest of your day.  

10. Reward yourself.  

Build in rewards for completing tasks. You may have heard that the satisfaction of doing a good job is its own reward. Maybe so. But eating ice cream, playing a game, going for a hike, or reading something fun are all great rewards as well. Pick an activity or tangible object that is a real reward—something you wouldn’t do or have otherwise—and give yourself a treat for completing tasks and projects. 

11. Fall seven times, get up eight. 

Nobody’s perfect, and you don’t have to be. Do your best, but if you slip off schedule and miss a task or deadline, all is not lost. Pick up where you left off with a fresh commitment to stay on schedule. 

  

Using one, some, or all of these tips, you’ll find yourself on your way to more positive productivity, less unhealthy stress, and a more balanced life. Why wait until tomorrow to experience today the rewards of a job well done? 

If you would like to share your ideas about how to be more proactive, we’d love to read about them and share them! Email us at BYUISblog@byu.edu 

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