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What is important in an effective to-do list

Another day has passed and there are still tasks on the to-do list.

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What is important in an effective to-do list

Another day has passed and there are still tasks on the to-do list. They are put off until tomorrow - again. Most people should be familiar with the unsatisfied feeling that sets in. "We often approach our to-do lists overly optimistically," says Linda Wulff. As a productivity coach, she accompanies people to optimize their professional time management.

To-do lists can play an important role here, because they are intended to relieve memory and bring structure to everyday work. But how does that work? “Start writing a general list. A place where they really put everything they want to do," advises Wulff. "But start every day with a daily list."

This should be visible. "It shouldn't be a note that disappears in some notebook," says Stephan Sandrock, head of the Department of Work and Performance at the Institute for Applied Ergonomics. "You should have the to-do list in mind, so you relieve your cognitive structures of the things that still have to be done and can be happy to be able to check something off."

Analogue or digital – opinions differ on this question. "There are studies that show that handwritten notes on paper are more effective because you link motor performance with cognitive aspects," says Sandrock. In teamwork, on the other hand, digital lists make more sense. "You just have to see which tool best suits the goal you want to achieve."

And it has to please. "If my gut feeling says I don't like this app, I won't work with it either," says Wulff. "Everyone should find their own system that they enjoy working with." But how do you find out what suits you best? Very simple: try it. "Everyone has a sense of which user interface appeals to them the most."

Whether digital or analogue, an effective to-do list should be broken down into smaller sub-steps. "It makes sense to visualize the individual steps and create something like a small project plan," says Sandrock. According to Wulff, it is important to write down daily goals as specifically as possible. For example, the item “training Ms. Meyer” has no place on the daily to-do list. "This is a task that is incredibly complex and takes a lot of time."

Instead, you write down the next concrete step: call your colleague and make an appointment, for example. "This is how you get started and don't let yourself be paralyzed by tasks that seem too big," says the productivity expert. The better you break down and structure the upcoming tasks, the easier it is for the brain to grasp them. Therefore, Wulff advises, for example, color markings as helpers. They are perceived as pleasant by the human brain and offer various options for structuring, for example according to projects, discussion partners or priorities.

However, many people may find it difficult to set priorities correctly: "We tend to prioritize things that are demanded from outside," says Wulff. Urgent things, such as daily inquiries from colleagues, often come first. On the other hand, tasks such as installing a new computer system that is not scheduled to start for three weeks are postponed. The expert's advice: consciously plan two hours a week for such tasks.

"Just visualizing the tasks can create structure," says Sandrock. "If that doesn't help, you can of course consult colleagues and managers." In his opinion, routine activities have no place on a to-do list, because "then the list becomes arbitrary". The situation is different with the tasks that only arise during the day. They should definitely be on the list, says Wulff. "Otherwise you run the risk of getting bogged down, because we tend to start side lists." Then the small tasks of the day suddenly find themselves on post-its, pieces of paper or in e-mail histories - and then you jump to them and forth.

How you write something down can also make a difference. Instead of general buzzwords such as "workshop", the productivity expert recommends specific task formulations such as "bring the car to the Müller workshop for an oil change". And behind it, ideally, the phone number. "We often think I'll just write it down, I don't have time for more. With that we boot ourselves out, because next time we have to think our way through the point again.”

Also important: your own time management. This means being realistic about how much time you need for which task. Linda Wulff recommends a time buffer of 20 to 40 percent per task. Incidentally, most people work easier and faster in the morning and in the morning hours. It can therefore make sense to work on more complex and demanding tasks first thing in the morning and to postpone activities such as working through e-mails into the afternoon.

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