Weekly roundup: Tips to help you write better emails

computer on desk

I recently covered some tips to help you wrangle your calendar, but there’s another necessary evil many of us struggle to keep a handle on: email.

As Shani Harmon writes at HBR, “We’ll spend hours polishing our LinkedIn profiles and revising our résumés, but hastily hit send on an unintelligible missive simply because we’re in a rush.”

If you need help staying on top of your inbox, these tips are for you.

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1. Make your subject clear with keywords

Kabir Sehgal, who formerly served in the military, now uses some military email tricks to craft clear, specific emails that are quick and simple for recipients to read and respond to.

One of Sehgal tips is to use keywords at the start of each email subject line, so the recipient knows at a glance what the point of your message is. Some of Sehgal’s example keywords include:

  • ACTION
  • SIGN
  • INFO
  • DECISION
  • REQUEST
  • COORD

Starting with these keywords lets your recipient know if your email requires any action on their part, making it easier for them to triage and respond to your messages. And though it might seem a bit much to write these keywords in capital letters, Sehgal points out why this is so helpful:

These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your email will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (If also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)

2. Write longer emails to avoid switching costs

This tip might sound counterintuitive, but it comes from a reliable source: productivity expert and frequent writer on unconventional email approaches Cal Newport .

The reason Newport’s approach works, he says, is because the biggest cost to our time from email isn’t from how much time we spend in our inboxes, but from all the context switching email requires of us. Every time we switch into our inboxes or back to our work, we’re costing ourselves time and attention.

So to stop email taking over our workdays, Newport says we need to focus on switching to our inboxes less often, rather than spending less time there once we’ve switched:

What you’re minimizing with process-centric emailing is not the time you spend in your inbox, but the number of times you have to open it.

And the way to do this, says Newport, is to write longer, process-based emails that follow these three steps:

  1. Figure out the goal of the email thread
  2. Find a process to get to the goal with the least back-and-forth
  3. Explain the process in your email

Say a friend or colleague emails to ask if you want to grab a coffee sometime soon. Here’s how Newport would reply using the three-step process above:

Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.

The goal of the email thread in this example is to organize a time and date when you can meet your friend or colleague for coffee. The process to get to that goal as quickly as possible is to offer the other party several dates and times that already work from you and let them confirm one that they’re happy with.

By explaining that a reply from the recipient will be confirmation of the meeting, and offering a back-up option that doesn’t involve the email thread, Newport’s example reply explains the process to the recipient so they know exactly what to do next to reach the goal of setting up the meeting.

Newport admits he struggles with this approach sometimes, “because the urge to get out of the inbox fast is so powerful,” but that he’s always happy when he perseveres with process-centric emails.

3. Make key points stand out for quick reading

Another military-inspired tip from Sehgal is to draw attention to the most important points in your email. Like using keywords in your email subject lines, this approach is designed to help recipients quickly read your emails and understand the relevance to them.

Sehgal suggests starting your email with the most salient information, pointing it out by writing “Bottom line:” in bold to draw the reader’s eye. This helps the recipient immediately understand the point of your email and decide for themselves whether to continue reading.

Another way to use bold text to draw the reader’s eye, says Sehgal, is to bold anyone’s name where you’ve mentioned an action you need them to take. This will help those points stand out so your recipient can quickly take note of what’s needed from them and act on it, even if they’re only skimming the email.

If you’re using Newport’s tip and writing longer, process-based emails, research from email tool Boomerang shows you may be less likely to receive a response. 75-100 words seemed to be the sweet spot for getting the most replies, according to Boomerang’s research, so combining longer emails with Sehgal’s tips for making the most important points stand out could be the best approach.


One final point to remember when sending emails, thanks to Shani Harmon at HBR , is to think carefully before adding people to the CC field:

Remember that each message you send contributes to everyone’s inbox, including your own, especially when one of your recipients decides to Reply All.

What are your best tips for staying on top of your inbox? Let us know in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: Tips for organizing your calendar

calendar

Being productive, working on the right things, and not letting busywork take over your day often comes down to how you schedule your work. As productivity expert Cal Newport says, scheduling your week in advance “allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights.”

Try out these tips for improving the way you schedule your work to make sure you’re spending your time on what’s most important.

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1. Categorize events

Even if you have a separate calendar for work events, you might have various types of events on that one calendar. Etsy engineering director Lara Hogan suggests creating separate event categories and using a color code to distinguish them on your calendar.

For instance, you might have:

  • 1:1s with your team
  • 1:1s with your manager
  • team meetings
  • office hours
  • client meetings

By color-coding your events, you can easily glance at your calendar and get an idea of what’s coming up for the rest of the day or week.

Here’s what Hogan’s calendar looks like with her color-code in place:

Lara Hogan's calendar

Hogan also suggests grouping events from the same category whenever possible. If you have a full day of 1:1s, for instance, you can stay in the same mindset all day. But a jumbled schedule with 1:1s, office hours, and client meetings will require more context switching throughout the day.

2. Make a boilerplate daily schedule

SuperBooked CEO Dan Mall suggests starting with a full schedule, rather than an empty one waiting to be filled up with events. Mall says he picked up this idea from designer Jessica Hische :

I love the idea that she starts every week with a full calendar, as opposed to an empty calendar that needs filling. I’ve always defaulted to the idea that my main work would fit in the empty slots, after everything else has been scheduled.

As Mall says, writing down this way of thinking about your work schedule makes it obvious how silly it is. Though most of us do approach our calendars this way: we start with a blank slate, and make our most important work fit in around any appointments and events that pop up throughout the workweek.

Mall’s solution is to create a boilerplate daily schedule and update it with extra details for each day. This way, you start with a calendar full of important work, and extra events have to fit in around your work. Here’s what Mall’s schedule template looks like:

Dan Mall's schedule

At the end of each workday, Mall spends half an hour updating the template with specifics for the next day’s work. Any calendar slot with square brackets around the event is replaced with something more specific. So “daily work” slots, for instance, get renamed to specific tasks or projects to be worked on during those times, and re-colored to orange once their details are set.

Since Mall has two possible slots for calls each day, he can confidently schedule calls knowing they won’t affect his work, and turn down call requests that don’t fit those times. And any unscheduled call slots are simply switched to daily work slots instead.

This approach means Mall always has an hour of meaningful work scheduled first thing in the morning, as well as scheduled periods of focus time for daily work. Mall also makes sure to schedule periods for checking email, Slack, and social media, and keeps those apps closed at other times so he can focus more on his work.

3. Let others do the work

Although using a calendar to schedule your work can help make sure everything important gets done, it can also create even more overhead as you end up with longer email chains to create and reschedule meetings throughout the workweek.

To avoid this, Hogan suggests blocking out periods of time on your calendar when you’re available to meet with others, and letting them book those times. You can use an app like Calendly for this, setting time blocks when you’re available and simply sharing a link to your calendar where others can book appointments. Or if you use Google Calendar with your colleagues, you can use the built-in appointment slots feature to let others book appointments on your calendar.

Hogan also suggests making events editable by attendees wherever possible, and adding a note when scheduling an event to let attendees know they’re free to make changes, as your schedule will update automatically. This way, you save the back-and-forth of email chains figuring out when everyone’s available and if it’s okay to move an event, and you leave the hassle of rescheduling to those who need to move the event in the first place.

4. Fix your Mondays

We can’t talk about schedules and calendars without talking about Mondays. They may just be the most tricky days to plan for.

Freelance designer Jessica Hische suggests avoiding setting deadlines for Mondays :

If there is a deadline on Monday, and you are prone to procrastinating/procrastiworking like me, you are most definitely working on the weekend.

Instead of setting deadlines for Mondays, Hische sets aside Mondays for doing admin work and keeping her business running. This way, she’s confident that she’ll get her admin work done every week, and she can ignore those tasks on other days when she’s doing more focused client work:

If I give myself one day to do the bulk of my emailing/interview answering/file organizing/scheduling etc, I feel WAY less guilty about ignoring all of that stuff for large periods of time during the rest of the work week.

Hogan agrees that Mondays should be treated carefully. She points out that recurring meetings that fall on Mondays tend to create a rescheduling nightmare anytime a long weekend pops up. If you have recurring team meetings or events, Hogan suggests scheduling them for other weekdays and keeping Mondays for one-off events only.


Whether you like to schedule everything, including periods of focused work, or just use your calendar for meetings involving other people, try these tips to keep your schedule under control and get more important work done.

What’s your best tip for managing your calendar? Let us know in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: Tips to get your side projects moving forward

computer and notebook

Side projects can help you create things for the fun of it, learn new skills, or even start new streams of income. But it can be difficult to find the time and motivation to move forward on these projects in your spare time.

Try these tips to make sure your side projects don’t get lose in-between other commitments.

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1. Plan the next step

Developer Gwendolyn Weston found knowing what the next step was for each of her side projects made it much easier to keep them moving along:

For every project I had, I outlined what would be the first few tasks I wanted to solve. The tasks would be limited to only the smallest possible discrete items. So instead of saying something general like, “Build the entire first screen”, it would be broken down into, “Add the screen into the view hierarchy. Turn background purple to confirm it’s been added. Add this label to the screen.” And so on.

Weston says this process made it easier to make progress on these projects, or start new projects, because she was no longer faced with big, daunting tasks or a lack of definition in what the next step should be.

By taking a few minutes to figure out what the first step for every single project on my backlog was helpful because then when motivation hit, I could very easily context switch into the project and made starting something new feel less overwhelming.

Action step: Make a list of all your side project ideas and note down the next step for each one. When it comes time to work on a project, you’ll know exactly what task to get started on.

2. Work on multiple projects at once

Another tip from Weston is to let yourself work on more than one side project at a time. While not everyone will agree this is a good idea, Weston says this approach worked well for her:

Because context switching became a lot less expensive with all the next steps written out for each project, I gave myself permission to switch between as many projects as I wanted.

Having multiple projects on-the-go means you can switch to a different one whenever you’re stuck or bored, and you can mix up the kind of work you do if each project is at a different stage or requires different skills to move forward.

Weston says this approach even helped her make more progress than if she’d made herself stick to a single project:

Having a rotating queue turned out to be super exciting, because as soon as I got stuck on one project, I just moved to another. Then by the time I got back to the original problem, my excitement was refueled by progress on another project. With that energy, I generally was able to figure out the original obstacle.

Action step: If you’ve hidden away or archived side project ideas because you thought you needed to focus on one at a time, try resurrecting those old projects. Make sure each project has a clear next step (see tip #1), and keep a few in circulation.

3. Categorize projects as commitments or experiments

Writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young believes the trick to finishing more of the projects you start is to divide them into two groups in your mind: commitments and experiments. Trying to finish everything you ever start isn’t sustainable, says Young, so it’s important to only commit to finishing some projects, and leave others open to change depending on how you feel once you get started.

Young says this approach comes down to changing how you think about your projects. You need to first decide to think about commitments as things you always finish, no matter what. Then you can start categorizing your projects as commitments only if you’re sure you want to follow through until they’re complete.

For projects you’re not sure about, you can categorize them as experiments. Experiments, according to Young, don’t always need to be completed. It’s okay to quit an experiment once you’ve discovered what you wanted to know.

Maybe you’re trying to figure out if you’re interested enough in learning a new skill, so you take up a project to test it out. Or you’re curious about a new technology so you plan a project that enables you to test that technology in interesting ways. Or maybe you think you want to write a book, but you’re not sure, so you start a project to write a book as an experiment.

The key here is that it’s okay to quit on experiments. But commitments must always be finished. Think hard about your willingness to see a project through before you categorize it, and set your expectations up front about which projects you can quit on and which ones have to be finished.

Action step: Work through your list of side projects and ask yourself whether each one should be finished no matter what. Categorize all your projects into commitments and experiments, so you’ll have the right expectations next time you get to work.


Whether you’re working on a side project for fun, as a way to upskill, or even to develop a new career, it can be hard to find the time to move your projects forward in-between other commitments. Try these tips to keep your projects organized, so you can make the most of any time you have to work on them.

What’s helped you move your side projects forward? Let us know in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: Tips to help you find your purpose

I’ve already discussed how important meaningful work is. It makes us more engaged at work, happier in the long-term, and even wealthier. But having a sense of purpose in your life can also improve your health.

An experiment by the nonprofit organisation Experience Corps paired adults 55 years-old or older with students in kindergarten for literacy help. While the students’ test scores and morale went up, the effects on the adults were even more interesting.

The physical health of the adult participants improved in a variety of ways: depression rates dropped, physical mobility and stamina increased, flexibility increased, and memory was improved. The sense of purpose that came from helping students with their literacy had a ripple effect in the lives of the tutors.

Other research has shown similar effects. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that a greater sense of life purpose correlated to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. And previous research has found that an increased sense of purpose predicts fewer subsequent strokes and heart attacks.

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purpose quote

So you’re out in search of your purpose. Where do you start?

Start with what you’ve already done. Start looking at how you spend your time now—what you enjoy, what you don’t, what you care about. The clues to your purpose are all hidden in your existing experiences.

1. Find the reasons you lose track of time

You’ve probably heard this one before. Think of the activities you get lost in; the activities that make you forget to eat or lose track of time. This is fairly common advice for anyone looking for their passion or purpose in life.

But writer Mark Manson offers an interesting twist on this common approach: rather than stopping at what activities you enjoy, Manson suggests looking deeper.

Look for the principles underlying those activities, says Manson. The principles that all those activities have in common is what you really enjoy. The activities could be anything so long as they provide the same underlying principles that make you lose track of time.

Manson offers a personal example based on his love for video games:

I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasn’t a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam, or showering regularly, or speaking to other humans face-to-face.

It wasn’t until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasn’t for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves — the graphics, the stories — they were cool, but I can easily live without them. It’s the competition — with others, but especially with myself — that I thrive on.

Manson was able to apply his improvement and self-competition to his writing and business, and found that his love for video games translated to his work because he’d applied the same underlying principles that made him lose track of time.

2. Find the “suck” you’re willing to live with

Another suggestion from Mark Manson starts with admitting that pretty much everything in life sucks most of the time. Most jobs have boring, frustrating, or hard parts. In fact, most jobs are boring, frustrating, or hard most of the time, says Manson.

But once you’ve agreed that everything sucks most of the time, you’ve given yourself an advantage in finding your purpose. You can now decide what kind of sucking you’re willing to put up with.

As Manson says, there’s no point pursuing a life purpose that comes with bad parts you’re not willing to do:

If you want to be a brilliant tech entrepreneur, but you can’t handle failure, then you’re not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the 80-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.

The trick, says Manson, is to figure out what kind of boring, hard, and frustrating work you’re willing to put up with. Because putting up with the sucky parts will make sure you’re there for the best parts, too.

What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? Are you able to stay up all night coding? Are you able to put off starting a family for 10 years? Are you able to have people laugh you off the stage over and over again until you get it right?

3. Choose a project, then do it

Here’s a refreshing approach to finding your purpose: stop looking for it.

Writer Alexandra Franzen says she always thought (as did I) that everything starts with your purpose. Once you’ve found your purpose you’ll know what work to do, what projects to start, what skills to build.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong, asks Franzen.

Finding your purpose is overwhelming, and it can be hard to pin down. Many of us are left frustrated and confused when our purpose doesn’t appear as if by magic.

Franzen suggests we start with projects instead, and let purpose follow.

This is her three-step process to finding projects to work on that will lead to purpose:

  1. Think about something that bothers you
  2. Think of a cool project you can do to fix that problem
  3. Complete that project no matter what

Things that bother you, says Franzen, can be as varied as boring dinner parties, online bullying, animal cruelty, or even poorly-designed websites. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s something you care about.

And when you’re done with the project? Rinse and repeat. Keep completing projects that aim to fix things that bother you, says Franzen. Rather than waiting for your purpose to show up, or struggling to choose a purpose, just start working. Purpose will come, as you complete more projects and home in on what you care about most.


 

What’s helped you find your life purpose? Share your tips in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: 4 ways to protect your time and get more done

clock

We’ve come to revere busyness, and to see it as being an indicator of high status. But busyness is harmful to our productivity and our health. It’s not something to aim for or be proud of.

If you’re struggling with busyness and need to carve out more opportunities to do meaningful work, here are some tips for protecting your time from distractions and busywork.

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Schedule focused work sessions in advance

calendar

Cal Newport knows the importance of setting aside time for his most important, and demanding, work. In fact, he’s written a whole book about it.

Newport is known for being prolific, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that he deliberately prioritizes his most important work over email, spontaneous opportunities, or meetings with colleagues.

To do so, Newport relies heavily on his calendar. He schedules blocks of time for his most demanding projects in advance, and protects those time blocks as he would any other calendar appointment. When the most important work is scheduled well in advance, Newport’s colleagues and fans fit their demands on his time around those appointments and Newport never has to de-prioritize his most important projects in order to find time for busyness.

The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.

This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.

Automate your focus time

It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?

One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started. Here are a few options to get you thinking:

Think about what interrupts you during focused work periods and stops you getting your most important work done. Find ways to automate starting your session, staying away from distractions, and keeping others informed of your status to ease the transition away from busywork and into a deep, focused work period.

Turn meetings into gatherings

If your time is often taken up by 1:1 meetings, or you’re constantly turning these down due to time constraints, try this trick. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests turning 1:1 requests into 1:many situations, so you can get more out of the time you spend helping others:

I’ll ask the student to email me his question, I’ll respond back electronically, and will later turn it into a blog post. Similarly, instead of one-on-one coffees, I’ll often organize dinners to bring together interesting groups of people who could also benefit from knowing one another.

If you spend a lot of time answering questions via email or contact forms, try writing a blog post you can point people to in future. This way, you only spend the time needed to answer the question once, but many people can benefit. Tech writer Robert Scoble answers questions on Quora, rather than via email, so many people can benefit from the time he spends answering a question.

If it’s face-to-face meetings you’re struggling with, try setting up a group coffee meeting or dinner party for people with lots in common. Rather than only one person benefitting from your experience and ideas, you can facilitate a group of people to share with each other, so you spend the same amount of time but help many people at once.

Choose something to be bad at

No matter how much we try, we’re never going to have time for every single thing.

The trick, according to Dorie Clark, is to decide consciously what you’re going to be bad at. If you decide to be good at email, replying quickly and thoroughly to every message that hits your inbox, you’re subconsciously deciding to be bad at something else. And that could be your most important work.

I’ve chosen to be bad at email response time because it’s less important to me than serving clients or creating new content like this article. But I’ll never let it get to the point where there’s no response.

Decide upfront which activities you can afford to put less time and effort into. Maybe that’s email, maybe it’s networking, maybe it’s filing your paperwork on time. The point is, something has to suffer if you’re going to prioritize your most important work, so you should decide ahead of time what you’re going to be bad at.


If you’re not getting enough meaningful work done, take a look at how you spend your time. You probably need to work harder to protect your time from the busyness and distractions that are so common for us all.

What are your best tips for protecting your time? Let us know in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: Quick tips for improving your work environment

handwrite

From the lighting in your office to the style of desk you work at, your environment can help or hinder your productivity. Let’s take a look at some ways you can adjust your workspace to suit your needs and improve your efficiency at work.

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1. Add natural light

Studies have found a strong link between the amount of natural daylight employees are exposed to throughout the day and the quality of their sleep. Lack of natural light in the office can increase sleep disturbances, reduce sleep quality and duration, and even affect our overall quality of life.

Other research has found increasing the amount of natural light employees are exposed to can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and decrease headaches and eyestrain—two of the most common health-related office worker complaints.

If you already work in an office with windows, try rearranging so all employees can see out a window from their desks.

2. Bring nature into the office

Various studies have proven the benefits of natural surroundings on mood, memory, and focus. One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.

Spending time in nature has also been linked to improved mental health.

Another study showed accuracy and focus can be improved simply by looking at photos of greenery.

You don’t need to build entire treehouses for your meeting rooms, but adding potted plants and photos of nature throughout the office could boost your team’s happiness and productivity.

3. Switch to a standing desk—sometimes

Though we love to rely on the extreme idea that “sitting is the new smoking,” using a standing desk for hours on end isn’t necessarily the answer, either, as we’ve said before:

Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.

Though standing desks have been shown to improve focus and engagement, there are also situations when standing desks make tasks more difficult, resulting in frustration. Some fine motor skill tasks, for instance, can be more difficult to complete while standing.

The best solution, then, may be a combination of sitting and standing, with plenty of breaks to move around in-between work periods.

4. Improve your desk ergonomics

Whether you use a standing or sitting desk, getting the ergonomics right can improve your comfort and productivity.

For instance, keeping your screen clean and free of glare can make it easier to read so your eyes don’t have to work too hard. Your computer screen should be about an arm’s length away from you when working, and the center of your screen should be a few inches below your eye level so you’re looking down slightly.

When you’re using a mobile device, remember your ergonomics as well. Most of us hold our mobile devices too close, making our eyes work harder to focus.


What are your best tips for improving your work environment? Let us know in the comments.

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Weekly roundup: Tips for writing a better to-do list

paper

The to-do list is one of the most classic productivity tools we have. And a lot of us rely on one. But that doesn’t mean we know how to use them well.

If you tend to lose your to-do list, avoid it when it becomes overwhelmingly long, or you simply forget to use one, these tips are for you.

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1. Share your to-do list

To-do lists are traditionally private, or at least personal. We make individual lists to suit our individual needs and responsibilities.

But what if our to-do lists were public?

It turns out, sharing with others the goals and tasks you want to accomplish can boost your productivity.

According to software developer Joe Reddington, making his to-do list public helped him see it with fresh eyes. He suddenly noticed all the duplicate tasks he’d listed, all the badly-worded or misspelled tasks, and all the confusing or badly planned tasks.

… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

Making his to-do list public made Reddington notice what was wrong with it—and fix it. After a big clean-up of his list, Reddington found he was much more productive. And when he added new tasks to the list, the knowledge that the list was public and might be viewed by others made sure he was more thoughtful in how he wrote out tasks for his future self.

I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

You don’t have to make your to-do list completely public, but try sharing it with a colleague or your boss to add a little accountability and help you see your list with fresh eyes.

2. Draw your to-do list

pencil

If you struggle to remember what’s on your to-do list, this tip is for you. Studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing.

A series of studies gave participants words that are easy to draw, such as “apple”, and pitted drawing the words against a variety of other approaches such as writing the word, describing its characteristics, or looking at a picture of the item.

In every case, those who drew the items remembered more of them.

Researchers suggest this may be because more skills are involved in drawing. We have to use our physical motor skills to make the drawing, as well as visualizing the item itself and thinking about its characteristics to help us draw it accurately. The combination of skills used may help to make more connections than simply writing down a word, which in turn helps us remember the item more easily later.

So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost.

3. Write a list of what you think you will do

Mark Forster has a blog chock-full of to-do list systems, methods, and ideas. One idea he used with great success himself was to swap his to-do list for a list of things he thought he would do.

Forster initially tried writing a standard to-do list and putting it away in a drawer, curious about whether he could complete the list without checking it all day. This experiment failed miserably, with not a single thing from the list completed at the end of the day:

On Friday I managed to spend the whole day without doing a single item on the list. I did plenty of other things but the “hidden list” seemed to repel me rather than attract me to its contents.

But when Forster wrote a list of things he thought he would do that day and left it in a drawer, he found the entire list got done:

I found myself doing the things that I had predicted. At the end of the day I had done every single item on the list without referring to it once.

Again, this may be memory-related, as imagining yourself doing various things throughout the day may make them stick better in your memory than simply writing a list of tasks you’d like to do.

Or perhaps it’s something more complicated. Perhaps by telling yourself you think you will do something, you’re actually increasing the chances that you will.

4. Keep a done list

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If you never seem to get through your to-do list but you know you’re still being productive, the done list might be for you.

This idea flips the to-do list on its head. Instead of writing down things to do before you start work, you write down what you got done after you’ve done it.

So you spend your day working as you normally would, and as you finish each task or project, take a phone call or come out of a meeting, you note down on your done list what you spent your time doing.

Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, uses this approach, though he calls it an “anti-to-do list”. Gascoigne found the done list helped him overcome the tug-of-war between his planned to-do list and the inevitable tasks that popped up throughout his work day:

I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”

Gascoigne also says the done list helped him see more clearly how he was spending his time:

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done.

(If you get this feeling a lot, you can use RescueTime’s daily highlights to keep an anti-to-do list alongside your productivity data.)

At the end of a day using a done list, you’ll have a long list of completed tasks, showing everything you spent time on throughout the day. Despite working in the same way you normally would, you’ll go home satisfied with your efforts rather than disappointed that your to-do list remains incomplete.


What improvements have you made to your to-do list? Let us know in the comments.

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