Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The humble to-do list: a busy student’s best friend

Regardless of the demands of our lifestyle choices, we all have tasks to get done throughout the day. Completing them all, however, is far from simple. Often we plan to do too much in too little time, forget what we had to do, or get distracted and go off track. This is natural and something that all of us do at some point. 

To-do lists are a relatively intuitive tool for getting things done. At its core, the concept of a to-do list mainly involves writing down our tasks so that we don’t have to keep remembering them. This idea has been around for a long time. Recently, I was reading The Clergyman’s Daughter, a 1935 novel by George Orwell, and one of the first pages includes the main character’s to-do list. Of course, the tasks done by a pastor’s daughter in early 20th century England differ from that of a Warwick student, yet she too was spending her day trying to complete all of her errands. 

My to-do lists used to make me feel horrible. They made me feel ineffective, insufficient and out of control. Instead of being a great tool to get things done, it was more like a guilt list of things I wasn’t accomplishing, silently accusing me of not being good enough. It made me feel the constant pressure of my unrealistic expectations. 

It has become a lucrative market for app developers and personal coaches

At the same time, I knew I couldn’t stop writing one. Avoiding writing one altogether would instead create the pressure to keep everything in my mind, cluttering my thoughts. I’d be constantly afraid that I’d forget something.

This seems to be a problem for so many of us that it has become a lucrative market for app developers and personal coaches. A simple google search for to-do lists directs us to multiple articles on the benefits of keeping them.  

Given how sceptical of to-do lists I became, I knew making one in itself would also be a task I’d dread doing. Reading 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, a time management book by Peter Bergman, completely changed my mindset. Bergman doesn’t care about how exactly you format the list. Instead, he addresses the underlying logic of the entire endeavour. His book focuses on how we can determine what to put on the list in the first place, and then execute our plans so that our days can be fulfilling, and our time well spent. 

The ignore list is an absolutely wonderful complement to the to-do list

To me, the most revolutionary idea was that one to-do list is not enough. Creating more than one every day may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t it enough of a burden already to have that one list weighing on our conscience? However, Bregman explains that breaking it down can allow us to truly focus on what needs to be done and let go of the things we shouldn’t worry about. He proposes a system that requires a to-do list, a waiting list, an ignore list, and a calendar.

The waiting list is extremely useful because it helps us keep track of things we expect from others. This is needed when we expect to hear back from someone about something, for example after sending them an email. These kinds of tasks shouldn’t pollute our to-do list or minds because we can’t do anything about them right now. The waiting list should instead include these things, together with a date and a reminder set for each item. We can simply forget about them until we get the reminder, and if we haven’t received the thing by that point, we know that we’ll have to follow up. Alternatively, we might need to let go of the expectation of hearing back from that person and change our plans accordingly.

The ignore list is an absolutely wonderful complement to the to-do list. Most of us focus too much on what we think we really have to do and too little on what we can choose not to do. It’s equally important to ask ourselves “what are you willing to not achieve today? “or “what doesn’t make you happy?”. 

What matters the most is that we progress in the right direction

Sometimes, there are things that we would like to prioritise, but they simply aren’t enough of a priority for now. We may not be willing to do them immediately or schedule a time to complete them so in that case, we might have to let it go, or put them on a someday/maybe list – a list where we put things to slowly die. Having one of these lists is great for when we aren’t quite ready yet to admit to ourselves that we are not going to do these things, but don’t want to keep actively postponing them.

There is a lot that still could be said about time-management techniques. There are so many, and they work for different people. Reading 18 Minutes worked for me. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t matter what we do or exactly how we do it. What matters the most is that we progress in the right direction, and don’t give up on making the most of our valuable time. This doesn’t necessarily mean working the hardest, but just being happy with the way we spend our days.

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