Don’t worry, there is a secret to better lists: Each task you write down needs to start with a verb. Go ahead and check your list – are your tasks actionable?
The trouble is that most people’s lists look like this:
- Bob re meeting
- Sue’s email
- Cool New Technology
Through the years, I have had many tasks that just never seemed to get done. They were doomed to shift from one to-do list to the next. Why was this? All too often these tasks weren’t really “doable”; they didn’t start with verbs. Fortunately, I learned the “start with a verb” technique a long time ago, but I have to admit that my habit is still imperfect, and whenever I slip up, my tasks take longer to get done.
Using verbs, the improved list should look like this:
- Phone Bob re meeting
- Draft proposal
- Email Sue
- Research new technology
This may seem like a minor difference, but the impact is huge! When you’re in a highly productive mode and you’re moving at a mile a minute to get things done, simple, specific actions are more manageable. Taking time to figure out exactly what you were supposed to be doing with the task would slow you down. For example, when you read a task like “Bob re meeting,” are you supposed to find a time to meet? Plan the Agenda? Sit down and talk with him? Without a verb, it’s unclear and it trips up your brain.
In fact, this extra brain energy required is enough of a deterrent that we often subconsciously skip the item and move on to the next, leaving the pesky nebulous task yet undone on the list for still another day. The result? Unconscious procrastination.
Here’s how to fix this problem. Read your list – and if you’ve got something verb-less ask yourself what action needs to be taken*. Take “Proposal” as an example. Do you need to write it? Edit it? Draft it? Plan it? Research it? Google something? Talk to someone? Phone someone? Email someone about it? Ask a question? Deliver it?
Once you figure it out, write down the specific thing. Remember: If it doesn’t have a verb, by definition, it is not something that is doable. Start making a habit of putting verbs at the start of every task. After all, your brain works hard for you, so give it a little assistance when you’re giving it directions!
Anyone else have challenges with their to-do lists? Feel free to share your comments and stories!
* Sometimes verb-less items are actually “projects” – a series of actions. It’s a good idea to also have a “project list” that is separate from your “to-do list”.