I truly believe the most powerful tool in my arsenal of productivity tips may just be the simple “to-do” list. As artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators, we suffer from the curse of the over-ambitious. We often shoot too high with too many goals. Our ambition to do so much can quickly become overwhelming.
Stricken with uncertainty and stretched too thin by our own lofty goals, we can be paralyzed to take any action. This is especially true when the rewards for our actions are so far into the future that we cannot feel the immediate gratification or benefit as we push towards them.
Coming to the rescue of the over-ambitious, over-stretched is the simple to-do list. With just a pen and paper you can break down your meaty aspirations into small, digestible bite-size chunks.
I’m not the only advocate of the humble to-do list. Take it from a man so ambitious and filled with innovation he patented over 1,000 ideas in his lifetime. Unlock Your Inner Edison shows us the January 3 to-do list of Thomas Edison that has dozens of invention ideas on it, from a “cotton picker” to an “electrical piano.” With so many ideas buzzing around in his brain, I don’t believe Thomas Edison could have ever become the “Wizard of Menlo Park” without also being a notorious goal-lister himself.
Personally, if I’m not writing and adhering to a to-do list, my days fill up with the minutiae: answering emails, making phone calls, and dealing with the immediate problems of daily life. No time left for creative marketing and creative problem solving. But now I’ve learned a few techniques to ensure I am including my broader goals into each day:
- Start the day off with a fresh to-do list: Starting off the day by writing a to-do list will establish the pace for the entire day. It reminds you of your goals and keeps you focused on them throughout the day. You can write your daily to-do lists in advance, but they usually need to be revised anyway.
- Make your list items simple and well-defined: It is more difficult for our subconscious minds to absorb complex ideas. So make the items on your to-do list simple. Start with a verb, such as “write, call, meet” and keep the items only three or four words.
- Plan for the Future with Lists: Daily to-do lists are essential, but also consider weekly, monthly, yearly, or even five-year lists as well. These lists will help you define and plan for broader, long-term goals. Revise and update these lists often and work them into your daily to-do lists. If you only focus on the immediate day-to-day, you will never address the big picture.
- Cross off items as they are completed: Usually, if you finish a task on your to-do list you will not forget that it is already done. However, you should to cross off the items anyway. Let me tell you, there is nothing more gratifying than drawing a big fat line through a to-do list item on my whiteboard, satisfied in the feeling that it is done.
I would love to pick Thomas Edison’s brain for more creative thinking on productivity tips. But you don’t have to be the world’s greatest inventor to have a to-do list. Everyone can benefit from a little focus. How do you make your to-do lists? Do you use a pen and paper, software, or maybe a white board? Or do you have an entirely different creative problem solving technique to help you tackle your dreams?
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