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How to write the right to-do list for you

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As we head into the new year, maybe you have a few things on your to-do list that have been there for months. Well, we have some tips to help you clear through that list and maybe even jumpstart those New Year's resolutions. NPR Life Kit's host Marielle Segarra spoke with some experts about how to write and tackle a to-do list to make it work for you.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: So to-do lists they're - are a tool we use to get stuff done, right? And, I mean, how good does it feel when you finally cross off that task that's been hanging over your head? But warning - to-do lists can also become a trap. They can feed our impulse to stay productive at all times. The thing is we don't want to make a better to-do list just so we can indiscriminately accomplish more.

ANGEL TRINIDAD: It's about doing what matters.

SEGARRA: That's Angel Trinidad, the CEO and founder of Passion Planner, a company that makes digital and paper planners that show people how to break down their goals into day-to-day actions. You can access a free version of the planner on their website. So takeaway No. 1 in making a better to-do list - as Angel was saying, decide what matters to you in this moment because wouldn't it be great to fill our to-do lists with intention so the stuff on them is actually helping us get somewhere? One way to do this is to come up with a big-picture goal, something that's especially important to you right now, something that would make a big impact in your life. Angel calls it a game-changer.

TRINIDAD: What is that one thing that would make everything easier, better? And that answer is different for everyone.

SEGARRA: To come up with that goal, ask yourself some questions.

TRINIDAD: What do I want to be? What do I want to experience? And what do I want to have?

SEGARRA: Maybe you want to be more present in your physical body. If so, your goal could be to run a 5k. Or maybe you want to give back to your community, so your goal is to volunteer once a week. First, though, I want to acknowledge this goal-making approach might feel kind of top down, like maybe you don't have a big-picture goal in mind yet, and that's OK. Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and author. He wrote the book "Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals." That's how many weeks are in the average human life, by the way. And he says another option is to let your current to-do list guide you.

OLIVER BURKEMAN: There are various exercises out there, like you might know the one that involves asking why five times in succession.

SEGARRA: For instance, my to-do list says re-tile kitchen floor. Oliver says I could work backwards from there.

BURKEMAN: So, like, I want to re-tile my floor. Why? To make that room look better. Why? And, you know, eventually, you hopefully get to something that feels like a bedrock value of your life. And if you don't, maybe that's a sign that it's kind of a zombie project that could be easily abandoned.

SEGARRA: Once you have a sense of your priorities and your goals, it's time for takeaway two. Pick a system, a way of making a to-do list that works for you. One question to get you started - paper or digital? Angel says some people like paper to-do lists because they're concrete and tactile.

TRINIDAD: And what I also love about to-do lists on paper is when you cross it off, there's nothing like it.

SEGARRA: Also, paper comes to an end.

TRINIDAD: When you put it digitally, there's no end. You can keep going. And I think that's when to-do lists get really overwhelming. It's kind of like a cluttered room. When it's too much, then you just avoid it completely.

SEGARRA: Digital has its pluses, though. If you make a to-do list on your phone, it's searchable and quite possibly more organized. Another question to ask yourself - how do you want to structure your to-do list? Some people prefer a kind of calendar approach with the hours of the day listed.

TRINIDAD: I like to time block on my agenda, and it's literally making a square of time for the task.

SEGARRA: So, you know, Thursday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., I'll be working on my novel. Wednesday from 7 to 8 p.m., I'll be at soccer practice. This method is called time boxing, and it can be a good way to understand how much you can realistically tackle in a day since you're visually blocking off time for each of your to-do's.

TRINIDAD: That kind of awareness gets you thinking. Am I spending my time in a way that makes sense for me and what my intention is for my life?

SEGARRA: But again, this is about finding a system that works for you. For Oliver, trying to plan this way feels too rigid.

BURKEMAN: I've never really found it works to make a very rigorous association between a task and the time of day because my moods, my responsibilities as a parent, random emergencies that arise, you just can't sort of say, I'm absolutely going to be doing this thing between 3 and 3:40. You have to with appointments and things, but if you try and do it with everything, very quickly, it feels imprisoning. It feels like life isn't any fun anymore, even if you're working on things that matter.

SEGARRA: So another option is a straight-up list of tasks. Call me old-fashioned, but that's what I'm sticking with. Remember; by the way, whatever you pick, it's just a starting point.

BURKEMAN: An important thing here is to feel like your systems for organizing your life can evolve constantly.

SEGARRA: Now, once you have a system in mind, takeaway three - it's time to fill your list. Let's start with an acknowledgement. There are some things you just have to get done - the tasks of daily living, refill that prescription, buy groceries, get more toilet paper. Those tasks can go on your to-do list but they don't necessarily have to.

TRINIDAD: There's this thing within the productivity world called the two-minute rule, and it's if it takes less than two minutes, just do it right then and there. You know, it's not worth spending the bandwidth to write it down, hopefully remember it, hopefully do it.

SEGARRA: OK. So we're meeting our daily needs. Now we want to reflect our bigger goals on our to-do list. Like, maybe one of mine is to redecorate my apartment. The thing is - and this is what trips a lot of people up - that's not a to-do list item.

BURKEMAN: So often things hang around on our to-do lists, and we don't get them done because we're not even expressing them in a doable form.

SEGARRA: Let's break this down. Which parts of the apartment do I want to redecorate? Well, definitely the kitchen. I want to replace the tile floor. Still not actionable enough. We're going to have to go even smaller. Call the hardware store for an estimate. Now that's doable. Go look at tile. That's doable. Order the tile - also doable. These are the kind of things to put on your list or in your planner. Oliver says you also might consider limiting your to-do list to four or five doable tasks at a time.

BURKEMAN: And you're not going to add a new one to that list until you've moved one away, thereby freeing up a slot.

SEGARRA: That can help you stay focused because you can't do everything at once. And that's takeaway four - pick something to let go.

BURKEMAN: You're going to be not excelling on a whole load of dimensions. If you're going to be like a really good parent and a really good employee, then you're probably not going to be able to be a really good - I don't know - runner of triathlons.

SEGARRA: So as you're making your to-do list with your big-picture goals in mind, pick something to fail at too.

BURKEMAN: To say, well, OK, instead of constantly being dismayed when I realize that I'm not superhuman, I'm going to make a decision about a few things in advance, but for this season of my life, I'm just not going to be doing so. Like, you know what? I'm not going to be keeping a tidy, beautiful house while dealing with a newborn baby and working full time, you know.

SEGARRA: And he says, when you choose what to fail at ahead of time, you're really changing your mindset because months from now, when you see your messy house, maybe it won't actually feel like you're failing. Instead, you could see it as a reminder of your values in this moment and what you've committed to.

BURKEMAN: I think that a lot of us seem to go through life feeling like we're in sort of productivity debt. You know, we've got to work really hard today to try to pay off the debt by the end of the day.

SEGARRA: But remember, Oliver says, there's nothing you need to do to earn your right to exist.

SHAPIRO: That was NPR's Marielle Segarra speaking with Oliver Burkeman and Angel Trinidad. Life Kit wants to help you make and keep your New Year's resolution. Check out Life Kit's Resolution Planner. You can choose areas of life you'd like to focus on, and the tool will guide you to some of Life Kit's best tips on the topic. You can find it at npr.org/newyear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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