You’re Writing Your To-Do Lists Wrong

When I was 9, I tried to learn to juggle. After several dedicated minutes of tossing and dropping the pins, I gave up and declared my career as a juggler was over. 16 years later, it was reborn. But, instead of tossing brightly colored objects in the air I was tossing classes, extracurricular’s, and sleep. Although I’m still no juggling expert, here are three strategies that helped me keep all my balls in the air.

Swallow Your Biggest Frog First

There’s nothing worse than staring at a long to-do list not knowing where to begin. You become filled with dread and anxiety as your eyes race over the endless tasks and your head starts to hurt as you mentally calculate how long each will take. Then, after several minutes of mental gymnastics, you decide to watch Netflix all day and find yourself in a horrible, stress-induced procrastination cycle. This was pretty much my Saturday routine 1L year. One piece of advice from Mark Twain really helped me battle to-do list anxiety.

 “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Essentially, it means you should do your worst task first. Agonizing over how long each task on your list will take wastes your time and mental energy. I’m not just saying that. Productivity experts like Brian Tracy have written about it. So, do that monumental Torts reading or contact that annoying client first thing in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.

Tomatoes are the New Clocks

Maybe it was just me, but my law school class schedule always had very awkward breaks in between classes. I was the queen of having 20-35-minute breaks in between all of my classes. That’s enough time to do… absolutely nothing. Or, so I thought. During 2L year, my friend Shannon introduced me to an app called Be Focused. It’s based on the Pomodoro technique, which focuses on completing tasks in short bursts with frequent breaks.

You pick a task to complete and the timer automatically sets itself for 25 minutes. During that 25 minutes, you must focus only on that task. No checking Facebook or chatting with your friends! Once the 25 minutes are up, you take a 5-minute break. You repeat this cycle until you’ve completed your task. This was the perfect system for my awkward in between class time. I was pretty amazed at how much spading I was able to get done in a 25-minute period when I was hyper-focused. If you don’t want to pay for an app, there are lots of free Pomodoro timers available online.  

You’ve Been Writing Your To-Do Lists Wrong

If you’re in law school or already graduated, you probably have an organization system in place. So did I. But once 3L year started and my schedule became too jam-packed to handle, I needed to make a change. Luckily, I was assigned to read Caroline Webb’s “How to Have a Good Day” for one of my classes. It’s chock-full of great productivity tips and general life advice. She has a chapter about to-do lists that changed how I organized my day and put my productivity into overdrive. I implemented four of her suggestions in my list making.

First, you should write a list of what you need to do that day. I always have two lists going at once. One list is everything I need to do for the week that focuses on larger tasks. The second list is everything I need to accomplish that day including small tasks. I write both lists at the beginning of the week so I have a grasp on how busy or light certain days will be. Second, your daily list should include things you know you will get done. For example, I would write my classes and meals on the list. It felt silly to write down “lunch” or “Evidence” on my list at first, but once I got in the habit I found it very satisfying to check off these items. This also kept me from skipping classes or attempting to work through lunch.

Third, your list should be achievable. A flaw in many to-do lists is the length. Your list should only be the tasks you can achieve that day. This is why it’s important to write both of your lists at the beginning of the week. With both lists written, you have a clearer picture of what your entire week will look like which makes it easier to push tasks earlier or later if need be. Plus, it feels good to check everything off your list! Lastly, find an online mechanism that works best for you. I used to be a fan of paper to-do lists until my friend MaryAnn introduced me to Evernote. Evernote makes it easy to create multiple lists, put checkboxes next to items, and update from phone and computer. I found this especially helpful for any last-minute edits. 

Implementing these tips helped me balance the many moving parts of my life during law school. I hope they are helpful to you, too! Or maybe you know a great productivity tip that I didn't mention. Please comment it below. 

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Sara Hundt

thanks, as a recent law grad, i appreciate this!

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