Turn Your Simple to-do List into a Meaningful Context List and You Will be More Productive

How Adding Context to My Activity List Made all the Difference

So it's mid-morning, you grabbed your to-do list, glance over it, nothing really stands out. You're the one that put these things on the list, but there is no real urgency and priority that stands out as you look at the list trying to be productive. It has happened to all of us and is happening right now to people around you.

In your productive journey infancy, you were told that making a list will help get things done. It's helped on a small scale as you've noticed. However, day after day, you've also noticed there is not a lot of structure in this type of list; there's very little excitement, organization, or even urgency. Why is this?

A bullet journal or to-do list, simply lacks the context needed for performing a good weekly review.

4 Things to Consider About a Simple To-Do list or a Bullet Journal

  • Bullet journals don't really provide the space or medium for a good AAR (After Action Review) or AWR (After Week Review)

  • That checklist is not usually kept (I mean why would you, if it's just a checklist) (During your AWR and noting the Big-Wins, a to-do list alone or bullet journal is not appropriate. It's a start, but now it's time to get professional and serious about your productivity.

  • While your adding stuff to your to-do list, you think of objectives that you know you should get done, but they really don't belong on today's list.

  • In your mind you're thinking of a small project your working on -- you add what you think your next steps should be, but what were the previous steps? Who was responsible, and did it get done? see: All Time is not Equal

I noticed that my most productive days are Mondays and Thursdays. The Mondays were very productive because I was more in tune with why this task needed to be done. The end of the week productive push came from almost a place of panic, simply because it was getting close to the end of the week. So I focused on why Mondays brought the best feelings of accomplishment. The reason may be a shock to you.

First, when those items were added to the list, my brain had that top-and-center with all the supporting documents; the reason "why," it was important to do, who was involved or affected, and the benefits or consequences of doing this task or not doing this task. At that time of writing it down, your mind has all those reasons figured out -- and it was important then.

So after a few hours, a couple days or a week have passed; then -- well, life happens. Now, that urgency and importance assigned to that task, has diminished.

A trait of good character, is the ability to carry out a task or decision, long after the mood in which it was made in.

Picture showing task list with meaningful context

Making it a Purpose List

With a digital planner it becomes easy to cut-and-paste between days

Let's bring that back into a tight focus.

Add context to each and every item you list out and transform it into a Purpose list

I'll give you some examples and you will see how this could help get that thing done.

Ex: Look for backpack at shop. vs. Look for the old black PC backpack I put in the backroom, to use for water bottles while biking.

Ex: Get propane tanks refilled. vs. Get propane tanks refilled because getting to campsite without it would be disastrous.

Ex: Fix holes in fence. vs. Fix holes in fence so kittens don't escape.

Ex. Dining room lights. vs. Look at new wiring and fixtures for lights flickering, because this is a safety issue.

Ex. Start generator. vs. Start generator so carburetor doesn't gum up and cost additional repairs.

Ex. Make next weeks Schedule. vs. Gather off-day preferences, and build next weeks schedule, because everyone deserves to know there schedule as soon as possible for their family.

I just picked a few personal tasks, but you get the idea. When it's time to execute on a task or to-do item, the job of picking a priority task, or even if the task should be done at all, should already be made. Since things change throughout our day regularly, it becomes important to make our tasks re-interview for the time slot unless it is a time-blocked item, not should the task even get done.

By bringing your own context into each task and to-do that you list, will solidify the spirit of the agreement you made with yourself, and the "why", then the execution part is a no-brainer.

I'm amazed sometimes after being on a zoom, or conference meeting, and actions items are flying around; I'm taking notes of my action items and things I'm responsible for, then within the next meeting, some people will indicate that is the first time they heard of something we discussed. Heck, I even took down their action items and could dictate it back to them.

Was it that they couldn't jot it down themselves? Maybe they didn't really hear what the discussion was, or did they just not add the "why" -- the context, that would have given meaning to their action items.

It's okay to say to someone, "I really want to capture what you're saying" let me grab my notes, or "that sounds super interesting, I want to capture that feeling you just described." You also would have just elevated the communication you have with that person; respect goes up and future communication can be even more meaningful.

If you are part of a team and notice a team member struggling with a task, you could say: "I noticed you have this project Z on your plate, and you past the deadline you set for yourself with this, can I help paint any of the details in a different light for you, or would you like to discuss your progress so far?"

During a weekly review as was often the case, I found myself moving certain tasks from week to week. These were not tasks that should have been turned into projects, containing several steps and involving multiple people. No, these were tasks I dreaded, and didn't find much value or a feeling of accomplishment doing.

A much needed introspection was done in regards to why I just couldn't seem to get some tasks done. Sure, I was procrastinating on some as well. I lacked making the connection between the action of the task and the meaning of the task. It's that simple. I once had a small task that I knew would fall into the procrastination bucket. The context I added was: because I have mad skills. It really was an almost meaningless task, however, to bring it's importance up enough to complete it, I felt this was necessary, and well, it got done pretty quick.

Perhaps the context additions I like the most are the ones that get me further toward my target goals.

I believe if you started adding context to each task, then you will see a measurable difference in getting more things done, and having a good laugh at yourself for some of the creative additions you invent.