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7 Expert-Approved Ways to Write a Better To-Do List

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When feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks ahead of you, sit down, take a breath, and write a to-do list. This isn’t just a sneaky form of procrastination: Studies have shown that we’re more likely to achieve our goals when we commit them to paper. If you really want to make the most of your planning time, ditch the old-school bullet format. These expert-backed strategies will help you confront your deadlines with confidence.

1. TIME-BLOCKING

On a traditional to-do list, obligations that take hours to complete appear alongside tasks that last a few minutes. Without time-blocking, it can be hard to tell them apart. Fast Company defines time-blocking as assigning individual tasks to manageable time slots. So instead of writing out everything on your plate for the day and hoping you have enough time to tackle it all, this approach lets you set realistic goals for yourself one task at a time.

2. IF/THEN LISTS

To-do lists are inherently optimistic. By writing something down, you’re betting that you’ll have the time and energy to make it happen. But sometimes life gets in the way of your fine-tuned plans. One strategy for setting reasonable goals without selling yourself short is to make two lists: one for high-energy days and another for days when you struggle to roll out of bed. According to blogger and Bullet Journal enthusiast Kara Benz, both lists should follow an “if/then” model. An entry on the first list, for example, might read, “If I have a lot of energy, then I will take a walk at lunch.” The second list should feature more mindless tasks like cleaning out your inbox, organizing your desk, or even setting aside time for a power nap.

3. EISENHOWER MATRIX

Michele Debczak

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Someone found a way to turn this maddening statement into a rather useful prioritization system. Plugging your to-do list into an Eisenhower Matrix breaks it into four categories. The first box, filled with items that are both urgent and important, is to be tackled immediately. The second set, labeled important but not urgent, can be scheduled for a later time. Tasks deemed urgent but not important can be delegated to others if possible, and entries that are neither urgent nor important should be crossed off the list altogether.

4. DRAWING

Many people use their own special shorthand when writing to-do lists—which is fine as long as they can decipher it hours later. If you’ve ever had trouble decoding the notes you write to yourself, consider doodling quick images to get your message across. One study found that words are more likely to stick in our memories if we draw pictures of them instead of writing them down. This is likely because drawing takes up more mental facilities (visualization, analysis, motor skills) than language alone. So not only does creating a visual to-do list help you memorize tasks, it also forces you to think them through ahead of time.

5. ONE-THREE-FIVE LIST

Instead of organizing entries by time or urgency, a one-three-five list looks at the size of the tasks at hand. Start by identifying the biggest job of the day—that goes in the number one slot. From there, pick three smaller, but still important tasks to fill out the middle of your list. Finish it off with five small items you’ll be able to take care of quickly. COO and co-founder of The Muse Alex Cavoulacos is a notable fan of this method. She wrote for her website, “Planning ahead like this also means you'll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away—as well as the tools to re-prioritize your other work.” So while it may be impossible to stick with what’s on the list every day, it doesn’t hurt to have it as a guideline.

6. KANBAN BOARD

Jeff.lasovski via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Like a calendar, a Kanban board helps you keep your day organized by visualizing the tasks ahead. Kanban was popularized as a scheduling strategy for manufacturing plants, but as productivity experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry write in their book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, it works on an individual level as well.

Start by finding a board. It can be a tool on your computer, a white board covered in Post-its, or a few columns of index cards on your desk. The important thing to remember is that any task you write down won’t stay in the same spot for long. After filling out the three columns—"To-Do," "Doing," and "Done"—jump into the items in your “Doing” section. Any items you complete should be relocated to the "Done" column, and any items you start from the "To-Do" section should move to under "Doing." Ideally the board should be situated in a spot that’s easy to glance at throughout the day. That way you can easily visualize your progress.

7. COULD-DO LIST

Sam Bennett likes to be realistic when planning out her day. Instead of writing a to-do list, the author of Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes A Day takes the pressure off by creating a "could-do" list. In order to weigh the importance of her optional tasks, she plugs them into a worksheet. She suggests reserving columns for tasks, time (how long each task will take), expense (if any), inclination (how appealing the task is on a scale of one to 10), and the return on your investment (also scaled one to 10). Based on those metrics, it should be easy to see which items take priority—and if you don’t have time to get to everything, it’s not the end of the world.

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5 Tips for Becoming A Morning Person
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You’ve probably heard the term circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that influences your daily routine: when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake up. Our biological clocks are, to some extent, controlled by genetics. This means that some people are natural morning people while others are night owls by design. However, researchers say the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, which is good news if you want to train yourself to wake up earlier.

In addition to squeezing more hours out of the day, there are plenty of other good reasons to resist hitting the snooze button, including increased productivity. One survey found that more than half of Americans say they feel at their best between 5 a.m. and noon. These findings support research from biologist Christopher Randler, who determined that earlier risers are happier and more proactive about goals, too.

If you love the idea of waking up early to get more done, but you just can't seem to will yourself from out under the covers, here are five effective tips that might help you roll out of bed earlier.

1. EASE INTO THE HABIT.

If you’re a die-hard night owl, chances are you’re not going to switch to a morning lark overnight. Old habits are hard to break, but they’re less challenging if you approach them realistically.

“Wake up early in increments,” Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis suggests. “If you normally wake up at 9:00 a.m., set the alarm to 8:30 a.m. for a week, then 8:00 a.m., then 7:30 a.m.”

Waking up three hours earlier can feel like a complete lifestyle change, but taking it 30 minutes at a time will make it a lot easier to actually stick to the plan. Gradually, you’ll become a true morning person, just don’t try to force it to happen overnight.

2. EXERCISE IN THE MORNING.

Your body releases endorphins when you exercise, so jumping on the treadmill or taking a run around the block is a great way to start the day on a high note. Also, according to the National Sleep Foundation, exercising early in the morning can mean you get a better overall sleep at night:

“In fact, people who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.”

If you don’t have much time in the morning, an afternoon workout is your second best bet. The Sleep Foundation says aerobic afternoon workouts can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often throughout the night. “This may be because exercise raises your body’s temperature for about four to five hours,” they report. After that, your body’s core temperature decreases, which encourages it to switch into sleep mode.

3. MAKE YOUR BEDROOM IDEAL FOR SLEEP.

Whether it’s a noisy street or a bright streetlight, your bedroom environment might be making it difficult for you to sleep throughout the night, which can make waking up early challenging, as you haven’t had enough rest. There are, however, a few changes you can make to optimize your room for a good night’s sleep.

“Keep your bedroom neat and tidy,” Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based doctor of psychology on staff as an expert in sleep hygiene at Seasons Recovery Centers in Malibu, suggests. “Waking up to clutter and chaos only makes it more tempting to crawl back in bed.”

Depending on what needs to be improved, you might consider investing in some slumber-friendly items that can help you sleep through the night, including foam earplugs (make sure to use a vibrating alarm), black-out drapes, light-blocking window decals, and a cooling pillow

Another simple option? Ditch the obnoxious sound of a loud, buzzing alarm.

“One great way to adapt to rising earlier is to have an alarm that is a pleasing sound to you versus an annoying one,” Dr. Irwin says. “There are many choices now, whether on your smartphone or in a radio or a freestanding apparatus.”

4. TAKE THE TIME TO PROPERLY WIND DOWN.

Getting up early starts the night before, and there are a few things you should do before hitting the sack at night.

“Set an alarm to fall asleep,” Torgerson says. “Having a set bedtime helps you stay responsible to yourself, instead of letting yourself get caught up in a book or Netflix and avoid going to sleep.”

Torgerson adds that practicing yoga or meditation before bed can help relax your mind and body, too. This way, your mind isn’t bouncing from thought to thought in a flurry before you go to bed. If you find yourself feeling anxious before bed, it might help to write in a journal. This way, you can get these nagging thoughts out of your head and onto paper.

Focus on relaxing at night and stay away from not just exercise, but mentally stimulating activities, too. If watching the news gets your blood boiling, for example, you probably want to turn it off an hour or so before bedtime.

5. GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF LIGHT.

Light has a immense effect on your circadian rhythm—whether it’s the blue light from your phone as you scroll through Instagram, or the bright sunlight of being outdoors on your lunch break. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, scientists compared the sleep quality of 27 subjects who worked in windowless environments with 22 subjects who were exposed to significantly more natural light during the day.

“Workers in windowless environments reported poorer scores than their counterparts on two SF-36 dimensions—role limitation due to physical problems and vitality—as well as poorer overall sleep quality," the study concluded. "Compared to the group without windows, workers with windows at the workplace had more light exposure during the workweek, a trend toward more physical activity, and longer sleep duration as measured by actigraphy.”

Thus, exposing yourself to bright light during the day may actually help you sleep better at night, which will go a long way toward helping you wake up refreshed in the morning.

Conversely, too much blue light can actually disturb your sleep schedule at night. This means you probably want to limit your screen time as your bedtime looms closer.

Finally, once you do get into the habit of waking up earlier, stick to that schedule on the weekends as much as possible. The urge to sleep in is strong, but as Torgerson says, “you won't want your body and brain to reacclimate to sleeping in and snoozing.”

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Wi-Fi 101: How to Tell If Your Connection is Not Private
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Free and readily-accessible Wi-Fi is just about everywhere these days, including cafes, hotels, airports, bars, offices, subway stations, and even public parks. But how do you know that the network you're using will keep your personal information protected? While most wireless routers and laptops have built-in firewall protections, just about anyone connected to the same network could peer into your device and view your activity without you even knowing it, even when you're online in the comfort of your very own home.

Fortunately, most modern browsers—including Apple’s Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome—have privacy features built-in, but every now and then an error message stating something like “Your Connection Is Not Private” may pop up on your browser and prevent you from visiting an unsafe website (which doesn't necessarily mean a website or your connection is corrupted; there are multiple reasons why this error warning can be triggered). There are a few ways to tell whether your connection is secure from hackers who want your passwords, credit card information, or other information you want to keep private.

First off, make sure you see a padlock icon next to the Wi-Fi icon in your computer's toolbar or, if you're using Windows, that there is a security type mentioned in the “Security” tab to make sure you’re on a password-protected and private network. And before you part with any money or passwords online, make sure you see

https://” instead of the commonly used “http://” at the beginning of the URL, which is an easy way to make sure you're on a secure site. You can also look for a closed padlock icon on the browser toolbar itself; this is an extra layer of protection that verifies websites as legitimate and uncompromised, and encrypts your personal info from end-to-end, so that hackers can’t read it.

Most Internet browsers also have a private or incognito browsing feature under the “File” tab, which automatically clears your browsing and search history and doesn't store Internet cookies for tracking services or ad targeting. While this feature “hides” your web activity, it doesn't make you invisible from internet service providers, employers, or the websites themselves.

Although it might enable your device to “talk” to other internet-enabled devices in your home or office, like a printer, you also want to turn off sharing on your laptop once you’re in public. Sharing can allow anyone on your Wi-Fi network to access files and folders on your device.

On a PC, open the “Control Panel,” click “Network and Internet,” and then “Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings.” From here you can turn off file and printer sharing. Furthermore, laptops running Windows 10 can enable a “Make This PC Discoverable” feature to set it from public to private. On a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “Sharing” and make sure all checkboxes are unchecked.

In addition, you can enable a firewall to block unauthorized access into your computer, while you can communicate with the outside world via the Internet. On a PC, fire up the “Control Panel,” and then click “System and Security” to enable a firewall. On a Mac, launch “System Preferences,” and then go to “Security & Privacy” to turn it on.

Lastly, consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the Internet. While turning off sharing and enabling a firewall might prevent hackers from looking into your laptop, a VPN can block an Internet provider, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, from knowing which websites you visit through your IP address altogether (although some VPN companies have been known to sell your browsing history). Services like Project Tor can mask that information by bouncing it around through a series of random servers—each with its very own IP address—from all around the world. So instead of sending web info from your laptop in Cicero, Illinois to a server in Chicago, a VPN would send that same info from Cicero to New York City to Amsterdam to Kuwait City to Manila to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.

There are also a few smaller things you can do to keep your Wi-Fi connection private, such as clearing your browsing data every few days or weeks, changing your passwords with a password manager like LastPass or Zoho Vault, and keeping your Wi-Fi turned off when you’re not using it. Luckily, most modern Internet browsers are really prompt about sending updates and patches to fix bugs and security breaches, but the best thing you can do is to stay vigilant and not join any open or sketchy Wi-Fi networks around you.

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