Break Your To-Do List Into Categories

Another way to improve your to-do list is by using categories: immediate attention, in progress, follow-ups, upcoming, and ideas. This allows you to again sort by priority and make sure that you are properly addressing what needs to be addressed.

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Again, a straightforward to-do list can be just as unproductive as having nothing at all. It can make you spin your wheels, create anxiety, and cause more confusion than it should. After finishing a task, you can very easily slip into the danger pit that arises when you attempt to select your next task, creating a loss of focus.

This occurs if you only list every task you need to complete without priority or organization. If you’ve got a to-do list that simply lists 10 tasks, how do you even know where to start? Do you start from the top and work your way down to the bottom? What if you start in the middle? What if you get stuck on the first task? You can spend 10 minutes trying to make sense of your task landscape every time you glance at it, or you can use categories to effectively milk the most from your list.

A list for a list’s sake doesn’t accomplish everything you need it to in an efficient way; it only ensures you don’t forget tasks completely. Of course, this is valuable in itself to reducing your stress and anxiety, but we are striving for more than that. Break your to-do list into categories that will let you know exactly how to spend each minute of your day.

Here are the five categories I suggest for your to-do list on steroids. They are ordered from top to bottom in terms of priority—because that’s what matters. This is how you squeeze productivity out of every waking minute. The categories work sequentially; only when you feel that you’re done with the prior category should you move onto the next.

Category One: Immediate Attention

Immediate attention—well, that’s self-explanatory, isn’t it? Check this one first and stay here until it is empty. These are the tasks that you must do that day or even every hour. There might be deadlines associated with them, either internal or external.

Order tasks within this category from most urgent to least. This is the first category to address when you look at your to-do list. Everything else for the day is just a bonus and nice to have. In fact, you should block everything else out until these items are completed because nothing else matters. Don’t look at the other categories until your Immediate Attention items are done.

Within this category, you should order the tasks from most urgent to least. This is where the essential work is and where you should focus your efforts.

For a teacher, Immediate Action items might be grading homework assignments or writing a test to be given the very next day. Things for the following week can be ignored and put off until later.

Category Two: In Progress

These are tasks you have been working on or that might be longer-term in nature. They are not urgent. In Progress items are for all intents and purposes what you were planning to begin your day with, except for the fire drill of the Immediate Attention tasks.

You may not be able to finish them that day or hour, but you should check in to see how they are progressing after you’ve attended to your most urgent Immediate Attention items. These are also items that might need incremental work every day, so make sure to meet your daily responsibility to them.

These tasks won’t make it into the Immediate Attention category because they can’t be accomplished in one day or sitting, so their urgency is lower. Still, this should be the second category you check to make sure that long-term or frequent projects are indeed moving along as they should. Often, these appear to be more important than they are because they are always present. But don’t let that fool you—there will likely be no quick consequences for missing these items.

For a teacher, In Progress items might be monitoring grades, dealing with emails from parents, or organizing a field trip for next week. These are all things that need to occur on a regular basis, but they can always slide down in priority when urgent matters come.

Category Three: Follow-Ups

These are items that aren’t necessarily in your control, but you need to check up on them to make sure they are moving along. This category is outward-facing and focused on corresponding with others and checking on tasks in motion. Most of the time, your emails and calls can be pushed down to this level of priority. This is an especially frustrating category because it feels like you should be doing something about them, even though there is nothing to do. The items in this category feel mentally unfinished, and they unfortunately occupy a space in your brain.

Things you might list here are to remind others about something, to follow up on a project, or to call someone back. This is also where you take note of tasks about which you have not heard back. In a sense, this is similar to the “don’t do” list—they are not your responsibility, and you don’t have to actively do anything besides check in with people.

This category is mainly for checking the progress of tasks that have made it out of the prior two categories. If they have been stalled on something unrelated to you, your job still isn’t done yet! Even so, these don’t warrant a higher priority because the main focus isn’t on you. You just want to make sure they will be ready for you when you need them.

For a teacher, Follow-Up items might be making sure all permission slips have been signed and organizing a teacher’s luncheon is on track. None of these rest on the teacher himself at the moment, but they involve him overall.

Category Four: Upcoming

The Upcoming tasks are a category you want to keep your peripheral vision on. These are things that might be tomorrow or next week, or they might depend on the current tasks you are finishing up now.

Whatever the case, they aren’t things you should currently devote your time to. They are the next dominos to fall, and what you should proactively plan for so you have a clear idea of what the rest of your week or month looks like. This category is about setting yourself up for the future versus doing something for the present moment.

It’s a good idea to plan out your Upcoming tasks as far ahead of time as possible and simply be aware of what’s going to be on your docket on any given day or week. This ensures you don’t miss anything by constantly thinking about what your next steps are. What will you need to focus on once your current docket is clear, and what kind of urgency will those items require once they become current?

This is the category of tasks that people can most stand to improve on. We all know what tasks are urgent and require our primary and secondary efforts, but what about what follows? Focusing more attention to this category will help you maintain better focus in the long run.

For a teacher, Upcoming items might be thinking ahead to group projects for the next unit and projecting when you will run out of construction paper. These won’t come into play for days, if not weeks, but understanding what’s to come is important in pacing and focus.

Category Five: Ideas

This category should resemble more of a list of ideas and tasks that you want to explore. They are aspirational. It might say something like “Phone as a memory recorder?” These are ideas that you can’t devote time to immediately and are therefore your last priority, but you still need to keep them in mind.

Take notes on your future projects whenever you can and they will take shape sooner rather than later. These ideas will often start as big-picture tasks and then break down into small, manageable chunks and tasks. You might spend a lot more time here than you think because nothing else can actively be worked on at the moment. Remember, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening; it’s just that your role is paused for the time being.

This category is about planning for the future and long-term success. If you have extra time, this is something you can work on developing, but not until the rest of the categories are accounted for—those are higher priorities to take care of and manage. Ideas is the last category you check. It’s a luxury to be able to reach this category. It allows a level of thoughtfulness and attention that we tend to ignore.

For a teacher, Ideas items might be researching next year’s curriculum and new ideas for class field trips. Getting into the habit of brainstorming new ideas and areas for improvement is certainly going to set this teacher up for success.

Remember, the objective of categorizing your to-do list is to cut down on the mental effort involved in thinking, “What should I be doing right now?” It gives you a clear blueprint as to where your efforts are needed.

If it takes you 5–10 minutes every time you look at your list to figure out where you should be, that’s a massive inefficiency that needs to change. If you institute categories, you’ll know exactly what you should be doing at any minute of the day with just a quick glance.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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