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Life hacks

How to Actually Check Off Your To-Do Lists

May 10, 2016

And get things done

I used to think I was really organized. I’m the kind of person who keeps lists for everything— work projects, personal projects, gift ideas, vacation ideas, packing lists, shopping lists, books to read, movies to watch. Then I had twins (the pinnacle of my efficiency), and when I returned to work after my maternity leave, I had more than twice as much to juggle and way less time to get it all done. All of a sudden, my lists stopped being so useful, and I realized I needed a new system to help me become more efficient.

I started by doing research on time-management systems and talking to ultra-efficient friends and colleagues. Ultimately, I figured out that I needed a single system for prioritizing everything that was in my head and on my lists. This change has helped me go from feeling overwhelmed and stressed all the time to actually feeling like I’m getting through my top priorities every day.

Here are some ideas to help you (re)organize and get more done, too.

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1. Get your lists out of your head and into an app
The first step is to consolidate all your lists in one place, ideally in an application like Evernote that syncs between your phone and your computer. Until I did this, I didn’t realize how many different little things were in the back of my mind competing for valuable mental energy. My master list includes everything I have to do no matter how big or small, from “Book work trip to SF” to “Buy toothpaste.” Every time you think of something new that you need to do or want to remember later, add it to your list right away and get it out of your head.

2. Separate your to-do’s from everything else
Divide the items on your list between to-do’s and other notes, and keep them in separate virtual notebooks. My “Action Items” notebook includes all of my to-do’s, and my “Notes” notebook includes everything from gift ideas to lists of movies to watch. I use the “Action Items” list to manage my work every day, and I search my “Notes” list for anything I want to reference later.

3. Make every to-do actionable
One way to make sure that your to-do list is actionable is to start each item with a verb. For example: “Buy Mother’s Day gift” or “Schedule meeting with the boss.” If your to-do list includes big projects, break them down into smaller, concrete tasks that can be accomplished one at a time. Take that big work presentation that’s hanging over you head and turn it into discrete tasks like “Draft outline for India presentation” and “Send outline to Jen for feedback.” Breaking down these projects can take some time, but this step is critical. I immediately noticed a difference in how much time I spent figuring out where to start versus actually getting my work done.

Read more: 5 Ways to Learn More Every Day

4. Prioritize ruthlessly
Use your list app to tag every item on your list with a “priority level” and a “category.” I recommend keeping your system super-simple when you’re starting out. I tag every item on my list with: “Now/Later” and “Work/Personal.” That’s it. You can always adapt your system over time to reflect how you use the list. Review the list of items that you’ve marked with “Now” as top priority. If the list is longer than what you can get done in a single day, go back and reprioritize by tagging some of the items with “Later” instead. For the system to work, your list has to reflect what is really most important.

5. Use your list to manage your day
I keep my “Now” list up on my desktop all day to keep me focused on my top priorities, and I have the list open on my phone to reference it whenever I’m away from my desk. Or if you prefer, you can just look at your “Work” or “Personal” list, depending on whether you’re at work or at home. I delete each item as I complete it so I can see my list shrink through the day. And at the end of each day, I go through my list to tag new items that I’ve added through the day and reprioritize items in the “Later” list to “Now” for the next day.

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6. Limit your time on email
Try to get through email in concentrated periods a few times a day. I keep my inbox minimized or in the background behind whatever I’m working on so I’m not constantly tuned into it. When you check your email, go through it quickly and only respond to urgent or quick emails, and add everything else that requires follow up onto your list.

Congratulations—now you can focus on actually getting stuff done!

Kruti is the vice president of business development at Etsy and a mom to twin toddlers.