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How-To

The Perfect "To Do" List

A "to do" list is supposed to function like a life raft in a sea of chaos -- yet all too often it makes getting things accomplished harder, not easier. "Mismanaging your list sets you up for trouble," says Paula Rizzo, founder of Listproducer.com. "If you don't know how to do it effectively, you end up feeding the frenzy instead of simplifying your life." Sidestep these common mistakes with Rizzo's easy fixes.

Problem: Your Home and Office Are Papered with Post-Its

Fix: Go Tree-Free

There are several digital organizers out there, like Wunderlist and Remember the Milk, that let you create and prioritize lists of all stripes and access them from anywhere; and Grocery iQ makes your shopping list a cinch.

Problem: Your List Goes On and On

Fix: Prioritize

There's nothing more overwhelming than a list that grows longer every day, even as you check off tasks. Organize yours by deadline so you don't waste time sifting through things that may not require your immediate attention. To keep your momentum going, create your list at the end of the day when project needs are still fresh in your mind. It'll save you from having to start from scratch tomorrow.

Problem: You List Things, Not Actions

Fix: Use Verbs

Writing down "tailor, proposal, gift for Stacy" can lead to confusion. When you say "take dress to tailor, write first draft of proposal, and pick up Sephora gift card for Stacy," you make things crystal clear in your mind and set the course for action. Take the time to be super specific: "Respond to emails" is vague -- and never ending. Who do you have to get back to, and by when? "Email Jen about the job opening" and "R.S.V.P. to Bob and Jeff" gives you a finite task to complete.

Problem: Your Notes Include "Get Promoted" and "Save for a House"

Fix: Separate Dreams from "To Do"s

Seeing your ambitions in black and white makes them feel real and achievable. That doesn't mean, though, that they belong on the same page as "pick up the dry cleaning." Break down a big goal into several focused steps -- and pick one to start on. What can actually be done with the resources you have right now? You may not be able to get promoted tomorrow, but you could start drafting a memo to your boss explaining why you deserve to move up.

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