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Your to-do list could be working against you

Pictured: Amantha Imber speaks at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit, person writes to-do list. Images: Getty, Yahoo Finance
Restructuring your to-do list could be the key to boosting productivity, Amantha Imber says. Images: Getty, Yahoo Finance

Crossing an item off a to-do list is satisfying, while writing a to-do list can help clear the mind and prepare your day.

But according to founder of innovation consultancy, Inventium, and productivity expert, Dr Amantha Imber, your perfectly-formed to-do list could actually be sabotaging your productivity.

Speaking at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in Sydney, Imber said a good to-do list is actually made up of more than one.

“What happens with most people's to do lists is that all tasks, deep tasks that require a lot of time and focus, and shallow tasks - quick and easy to do, generally occupy the same list,” Imber said.

“The problem is what sort of tasks do you think you are going to default to doing? Shallow. Because shallow are quick and easy, you can take it off and hear the ping on your to-do list software and feel really good and get a dopamine hit.”

It makes sense, put a small task like ‘send email’ or ‘respond to Sarah’ down, complete that two-minute task and receive the satisfaction of crossing that little chore off your list.

The problem is that this dopamine hit isn’t useful long-term, as it prevents you from prioritising your deep work routine.

“My ... tip for you in terms of developing a deep work routine; split your to-do list into deep versus shallow tasks,” Imber said.

The next step is to make time in your calendar that will be free from distractions to dive straight into deep work, Imber added. That could even mean going to a cafe, a quiet room or just investing in a set of head-phones to deter conversations.

What else can we do to improve our to-do lists?

There are many ways to boost your productivity. Image: Getty
There are many ways to boost your productivity. Image: Getty

According to Dr Heidi Grant Halvorsen, to-do lists “don’t usually work” but can with the right approach.

“The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance. The general format of an if-then plan looks like this: If (or When) ___________ occurs, then I will ________________.”

This could take the form of, ‘When it’s 2:30pm today, I’ll stop what I’m doing and write the introduction to that report.’

“Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity for taking action when it arises,” Halvorsen said.

Executive coach Allison Rimm has a different strategy: she has one list for important but not time-sensitive tasks, another for jobs to be completed that day and another she describes as a “not-to-do list”.

Writing for The Harvard Business Review, Rimm said this third list is essential to keep those tasks from “sneaking back onto my to-do list”.

She also uses her calendar as a tool.

“For example, instead of putting an item like “write speech” on my to-do list, I put it on my calendar, blocking out the necessary prep time to get it done. I do this as soon as I book the speech. Then there’s no chance that I’ll notice the day before, “Oops, I’m supposed to give that speech tomorrow!”

But the world’s second-richest man, Bill Gates, doesn’t even use a to-do list.

“Instead, I use email and desktop folders and my online calendar,” Gates wrote for CNN in 2006.

“So when I walk up to my desk, I can focus on the emails I've flagged and check the folders that are monitoring particular projects and particular blogs.”

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