To Do: Make a Better, Smarter To-Do List

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Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple magazine, shared her tips for how to write out a more effective to-do list and how to manage our time to get to more of the items on the list -- and maybe even figure out how to deal with the overwhelming volume of e-mail in our inboxes. 

Here are van Ogtrop’s tips for maintaining a smarter to-do list:

  1. Find what works for you. Whether that’s using an app on your smartphone, emailing yourself or good old-fashioned paper. Your list can be for today, this week, or your long-term goals.
  2. Avoid piles. "A pile is a deferred decision," van Ogtrop says. And one of the drawbacks of piles is that you only see the thing at the top.
  3. Use your smartphone. It can be a good tool to help you get through your to-do list. Van Ogtrop mentioned 3 apps: Real SimpleRemember the Milk, and Todoist: To-do List.
  4. Put the easiest thing at the top of your list. Van Ogtrop: "Even if I get to nothing else on my list, I’ve crossed one thing off."
  5. Writing down small steps. They can help you get over the psychological hurdle that can come with big tasks. But be careful of putting too much on your to-do list: "If you wake up in the morning and you put 20 things on your to-do list, at the end of the day you will have gotten through 5 and it’s going to make you feel depressed."  
  6. Help your family stay organized. Put a list of 5 things that need to get done over the weekend so your whole family can see it, all the time.
  7. Eliminate distractions. Try to block out times of day when you’ll tackle your email inbox.
  8. Sort your inbox by sender. When you’re coming back from vacation and facing an inbox with hundreds of unread emails, try sorting them by sender so that you make sure you see the messages from the most important people in your life first.
  9. Leave some room for spontaneity, downtime or space to be creative. If you find yourself becoming a slave to your list, ask yourself: "Am I controlling my to-do list or is my to-do list controlling me?"

Keeping organized can help you save time. Real Simple’s study of how women manage their time found that, on average, they spend 55 minutes a day looking for things.