Who doesn’t love a good to-do list? Oh yeah, that’s right: I’m the only one who does. But if your to-do list isn’t your best friend, you’re probably doing it wrong. Of course no one likes staring at an infinite list of menial jobs that’s poorly organized. If you don’t attack your to-do list the smart way, you may feel like you’re never getting anything done. Teach your to-do list a lesson it won’t forget and check off all those boxes, every day, with these four simple tips. Because success belongs to those who complete things.

Paper or Digital? Just Pick One

Decide on whether you’re going to keep a list on paper or digitally – not both! Having to-do lists strewn all over the place means that you’re going to lose track of what’s on your plate. You’re also more likely to give yourself far more tasks than you could ever hope to accomplish. There’s really no reasons to choose one over the other – it’s completely a matter of personal preference. Just pick one and then stick to it. My husband loves Google Keep, while I prefer writing on a single sheet of paper for the week that I divide up by day and tape to the side of the fridge.

Write It the Night Before

Want to guarantee that you’ll waste half your morning? Don’t write your to-do list until you’re at work. If you want to be ready to hit the ground running as soon as the day begins, take a moment before you go to bed each night to set some priorities for the following day. This also helps you get any physical items together that you’ll need. Planning on hitting the gym? Get that nasty bag cleaned out and refilled with the items you’ll need. Preparing to have a meeting with a client across town? Look up the address in advance to make sure that you actually have time to get there punctually. There shouldn’t be any surprises – this is your life, not an awkward 40th birthday celebration.

Keep it Short

If you wonder why you’re never getting anything done, it may be that you’ve given yourself too many things to do. 15 items on your to-do list? Way too many. It may be that you’ve placed some items on your to-do list that really belong somewhere else. “Buy eggs” should go on a grocery list (again, paper or digital is your choice; I’ve used a Reminders list on my iPhone for years). I recommend including no more than 6 items each day. You can cheat a little by grouping some items together; for example, you’re not going to run into too much trouble by putting “send Uncle Ralph a birthday card” and “put rent check in the mail” into the same category. You’ll feel far more successful and accomplished when you only include what you can realistically accomplish, assuming that there will be a couple distractions and setbacks (there always are).

Find Your Ideal Strategy

There are two schools of thought on what you should tackle first. Some feel that it’s best to attack the most challenging and onerous job before anything else. The idea behind this one is that without it looming over you all day, you’ll be more productive (and less anxious). Another way to get through that list is to speed through the easy, quick jobs first to give yourself a sense of accomplishment and make the list seem shorter. The strong prevalence of both these ideas makes it pretty clear that there’s no one right answer. It probably depends on whether you’re a morning or an evening person and how much stress it causes you to know that you have a monstrous task still undone at 3PM.

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William Lipovsky owns the personal finance website First Quarter Finance. His most embarrassing moment was telling a Microsoft executive, "I'll just Google it."

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