Science shows that the "humble" to-do list actually can be incredibly powerful. Make one at night with actionable steps for the upcoming day, for example, and you might actually sleep better knowing what you're going to deal with soon. But take a look at your to-do list right now. Do you have specific times written in next to each job that identify when you'll handle the task?

OK, you need to fix that.

Why get so specific?

 When you assign times to your to-do list items, you're forced to consider how long each job is going to take to complete. You then have to look at your calendar to see where that amount of time practically fits and where it makes logistical sense for efficiency. As you do this, you are automatically forced to prioritize and see where it might be necessary to delegate, as you might not have windows of opportunity for everything you hope to accomplish. (You might want to note here that successful delegation feels a whole lot better than looking at what you didn't get done, so swallow your pride, OK?) This prioritization is critical not only because it keeps you focused, but also because it ensures you maintain an amount of work that's realistic, reasonable and healthy. Subsequently, you're likely not going to feel as stressed and will have a significantly better quality of life.   

How to link your daily calendar to the to-do list

  • Create your to-do list through your day. (I like to jot on a small white board on my desk so my jobs don't get buried in the 8,000 browser tabs I always have open, but digital tools like Google Calendar or Evernote work just fine, especially on the go.)
  • Go through your to-do list in the evening and estimate how much time each job is going to take to complete.
  • Rank the items on the to-do list in order of time sensitivity.
  • Look at your calendar. Consider whether there are any appointments or jobs scheduled that could be shifted to create larger blocks of free time.
  • Try to fit each task on the to-do list into a slot of free time on your calendar. Items marked as highly time sensitive should be scheduled first, followed by whatever is left.
  • Set digital reminders for all to-do list tasks within the calendar or another app of your choice.
  • Review the to-do items on your calendar in the morning when you're fresh. If you happen to have made a poor scheduling decision from fatigue or because you forgot something, you have a chance to tweak your agenda.
  • Make sure you've shared your calendar with individuals who might need to see your activities, as they need to understand you're not available during the time scheduled for the to-do jobs.
  • If a true emergency arises that claims your to-do time (life happens), reset your tasks on the calendar, maintaining the prioritization for those jobs as best you can. Be careful here that you don't let the feeling of urgency cloud your judgment of what a true emergency is!

As you run through this sequence every day, another great principle to follow is the "handle it once" rule. This simply means you approach jobs on the to-do list with a start-to-finish mentality whenever you can. This can leave you feeling more settled than if you look around and see a bunch of tasks half finished.

Secondly, get in the habit of including some personal time on the to-do list. Even if it's just 15 minutes, that time is critical for recharging so you can face everything else on the schedule and remember who you are. Consider your relationships on the to-do list, too. For example, what about that email from a friend you never answered? Well, schedule in your response. With the world as hectic as it is, and considering the pressure everybody's under to do more and outshine everyone else, it's necessary to make a conscious choice not to let ourselves get too buried in responsibility.

Published on: Jun 12, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.