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Creating to do lists that work

This post is part of the series on Time Management in Youth Ministry. I’ve always been a list-loving type of person. And color me stupid, but I love my to do list best of all. You wanna know why? Because my to do list reduces my stress, is a wonderful tool for setting priorities and gives me a daily sense of accomplishment. But in order for a to do list to accomplish that, you need to set it up the right way. Here’s my advice, which is by the way heavily based on an awesome book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Create an inbox

The first thing you have to do is to create an inbox where you collect everything you have to do something with. I have a simple paper tray as physical inbox and I use Evernote as digital inbox. You can read more about the concept of an inbox in a previous post called Getting things done in Youth Ministry.

You can use simple paper trays to create a physical inbox

Create a ‘general to do list’

For creating a to do lists that works, you have to put everything you can think of on a general to do list. This can be a simple piece of paper or you can go digital and put it in a Word document or so. Again, I use a map in Evernote where I make notes for every single item I have to do. It’s important to put everything you need to do on this list, both private and work related. Don’t keep a separate to do list for certain projects or areas, it’s not efficient and you lose your sense of overview.

There’s one other thing that’s absolutely crucial: only actionable items belong on your to do list. ‘Organizing youth service’ for instance is not an actionable item. It’s a project (see below) of which the actionable items would be things like ask senior pastor to speak at youth service, discuss theme with worship leader, ask a small group to do the catering, etc. If you are waiting for someone’s response before you can do something, that something doesn’t belong on your to do list either but on a ‘waiting for list’. Do not include any items on your to do list that are not actionable, for it will muddy up your to do list.

Create a ‘project list’

If you have to do things that require more than, say 5 actions, it’s a project that needs to be put on a project list. Create such a list by writing down every project you’re involved in, both private and work related. It can vary from redecorating the living room, to organizing a retreat, or doing an evaluation of this year’s youth ministry. Write down the project and then list all actions that flow out of it. These can be transferred to your general to do list.

Create a ‘waiting for list’

Anything you have can’t do because you’re waiting for others to respond goes on your Waiting for list. If you have a deadline before you need an answer, write down a check as an actionable item on your general to do list (‘See if Jack has responded yet, if not send reminder’). I’ve also written about this in Getting things done in Youth Ministry.

Create a date-based to do list

What you need next is a way to write down to do’s on certain dates on which you need to do them. If you need to cancel a subscription in July for instance, there’s no reason to have this on your to do list in June. It’s not an actionable item. So you need a system where you can write down to do’s on certain dates. I’ve done this with an agenda, a calendar and now I use Evernote. In Evernote, I have maps for each day of the week, each month and a map ‘next week’. This is also known as a ‘tickler file’.

Create a workflow

With all these things in place, here’s what you do:

  • Empty both your physical and your digital inbox daily or every other day on a set time, eg first thing in the morning or late at night.
  • If it needs less than three minutes, do it right away. If not, put it on your general to do list.
  • Review your Project list weekly and determine the next actions for each project. Put them on your to do list, but only if they’re actionable.
  • Review your Waiting For list weekly and see which items need follow up. Put them on your to do list.
  • Review your General to do list weekly. Put date-sensitive items at the right date. Prioritize the other items and determine what needs to be done first (see this post for two ideas on how to set the right priorities). Schedule those in your agenda and determine per day what you will do. Make sure you block time for the big things first.

I’ve been using this method for some years now and love it. Here’s what I love about it:

  • It reduces my stress greatly because I can be sure I’m not forgetting anything important
  • It has made me more productive, more efficient and more effective because I do what I need to do on time and I don’t waste time trying to figure out what to do next
  • I know I’m doing the right things on time because I have overview of everything and can then determine my priorities
  • I can stay on top of things easily without complicated systems, I always feel like I know exactly what I need to do
  • I have a great sense of accomplishment because I do the things I need to do and want to do on a daily basis

How do you use to do lists? Do they work for you? What are some pros and cons in your experience?

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0 thoughts on “Creating to do lists that work

  1. […] you need to do something before you can answer the email, put the action on your to do list. I simply forward an email like this into Evernote and then put it on the day I want to do this. […]

  2. […] The mind can only let go of things if there is a trusted plan or system. Spend time working on a to do list that works for you, one that you can […]

  3. […] crucial things and still manage to forget to do stuff. To be productive and efficient, you need one central to do list with everything on it. You need to be able to trust your to do list in the sense that everything […]

  4. […] written about this before, but I’ll say it again: you need to have a perfect to do system you can trust. If you are not 100% convinced all your to do items are on your to do list, it’s […]

  5. […] found yourself writing them the day before, what was the cause? Did you forget to put it on your to do list? Did you set the wrong priorities? Did you let yourself get distracted by other seemingly important […]

  6. […] at school or preparing dinner), but other things you can schedule yourself. I always look at my to do list to see what needs to be done and then I decide on my priorities. Be sure to not only schedule what […]

  7. Great tips. Thanks. I also added it to the ‘Leadership and Youth Ministry’ Magazine.

  8. […] INO System means that you ask yourself of each item on your to do list if it’s an Investment, Neutral or Optimize […]

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