To-Do List is a Time Management Tool


Even though the prevailing feeling is that most of the resources are limited, the only finite resource is time. Sadly, it is also the resource we tend to waste the most. Of course, we can’t, and we shouldn’t spend every waking moment with bustling activity, but at least we can try to be mindful about how we use our most valuable resource.

I bet you know the feeling: if you are absorbed in an activity, time flies by, and if you are disinterested, the clocks stop ticking. I have many different arguments about this phenomenon, but today we will talk about what it means for a person with attention problems. In my opinion, attention deficit disorder is an inadequate name for the condition because people who have ADD don’t have a lack of attention; they have a filtering problem. Imagine that your mind never rests and flutters from interest to interest and you lack the will to sort out the unimportant stuff. That’s what people with ADD deal with all the time, and the result is days, months , and sometimes years of pondering; fervently following everything that induces curiosity. When they reach the other end, people look back and see many unfinished projects if they are lucky and just a void if they are not.

If you are one of those who suffer from attention irregularities, it is of paramount importance that you sort out what needs to be done, plan what you are going to do, and do it. Everybody is different, and you should try to find a solution that suits your needs. I am sharing the solution that works for me:

1- Decide which tasks are essential for attaining your long-term goals.

Humans are obsessed with ideas and goals. Yet ideas and goals are meaningless if you fail to act upon them. Since I have a problem focusing and deciding what I should turn my attention to, I need a system to overcome this tendency. My solution is to have a stable primary goal and build habits that would lead me to that goal. If I try to develop habits for a purpose but fail to practice the routine consistently, I shrug and start working on finding a new target. If I fail following a habit, I suspect the goal is extrinsic instead of intrinsic, and I never prioritize extrinsic goals.

Once I decide on the goal, I spend weeks analyzing what I need to know and the skills I have to achieve. I work hard to understand the dependencies between that knowledge and skills. I decide on the most critical independent step and divide it into actionable steps, favorably to micro-habits. Those steps and micro-habits become my primary to-do list items.

2- Before going to bed, decide up to 3 items that you must work on the next day.

I use a to-do list for two things: I use it to make sure I do something that makes me get closer to my goals every day, and I use it to be certain that urgent activities don’t interfere with important ones. I am always aware that there may be many things that I might need to tackle during the day, but I make sure I work on the essential items by ensuring that I know what actions I have to take before the day starts. I treat those actions as sacred.

I tried many methods for prioritization, but in the end, I figured out I can never tackle more than three habit-building activities, and I usually keep it at one. If I have more than three items I feel that I must accomplish, I feel overwhelmed and start procrastinating. I call that particular activity that I have to finish, the sacred one. It stays on the top of my to-do list. Once the sacred item is placed, I know that the day will be fruitful because I have the habit of focusing on and finishing the sacred items on my to-do list as soon as possible. This is the power of habit because, since I mastered the habit of following my priority, I feel restless until I finish my sacred item or items.

Let me give you an example; my primary goal is improving my writing skills, and I figured that to get better at writing, I have to write every day. I wasn’t ready to publish everything I have written, and I didn’t want to focus on other aspects of writing. I just wanted to write every day. Therefore, I decided that the main sacred habit is journaling every day. It has been over 45 days since that decision, and now journaling is part of my day. When I don’t write in my journal early in the morning, I keep thinking about my journal and itch to find time and place to write.

That’s the power of streaks, of which I am a firm believer. Experts say you have to do something for 21 days to turn that into a habit, but I figured out it is around 30 days for me. I try not to work on two time-consuming habit-building activities in the same 30 day period. Instead, I decide on the next item I will turn into a habit, and I keep it in my to-do list as an optional activity.

3- Set your goals based on time allocation — not as accomplished tasks.

For a long time, my to-do list was full of items waiting to be finished such as: read 50 pages, write a blog post about jumping jacks, research about fishers of West Virginia, etc. I almost always failed at following my to-do list and felt terrible about it. After making the same mistake repeatedly, I figured out that I am not a good judge of deciding how long an activity takes. Moreover, if I tried to finish every item on my to-do list, the quality of my work suffered. I would read 50 pages I set out to read, but I wouldn’t remember them. I would write a blog post, but it would be incomprehensible. I would do sloppy research. To solve this quantity over the quality problem, I started to decide the amount of time I would allocate to the item.

This time allocation problem solved one of the major problems about to-do lists for me. Now, my to-do list items are like: work on the blog post about the historical importance of underwear, read The Saturner for 30 minutes. It might take me five weeks to finish that post, or it might take me two hours. Doesn’t matter. I will tackle it one hour at a time. And who knows how many pages I am going to read in those thirty minutes.

I have to note that the time you allocate, especially for habit-building activities, should be something you can do consistently. I would love to spend eight hours on my blog every day, but it is not sustainable. I know I will spend eight hours some days, and I will spend less time the other days, and not being able to hit my target will make me feel bad, and I will give up. So instead, I go for an hour. No matter how busy my schedule is, I can squeeze out an hour to do something I value.

4- Use a timer to keep track of your progress.

Sometimes my day is so chaotic and full of urgent items I have to take action, I can’t find a solid hour to spend on my most important activity. Facing this problem multiple times, I have decided to use a timer: I use the Bear Focus Timer app on my iPhone to track the time I spend on a task. The bear focus timer is an app that counts down as long as your phone screen is facing downward. If you pick up your phone, you get an angry bear with an indicator showing how many minutes you have left.

My timer keeps me honest to my goal and stops me from getting distracted because I make sure I pick my phone up if I am distracted.

5- Add secondary items as things you would like to finish.

These are the tasks you would like to finish that day but not necessarily related to your future goals. Usually, people’s to-do lists are full of this kind of activity. Remember that these items are secondary items for you, and they should be treated as such until you finish your main task. If you mix what is urgent with what is essential, you will never move forward because there will always be urgent tasks and they will suffocate your dreams.

I hope this has been hopeful! How do you plan your day? Please share your method in the comments below!

Yigit Cakar