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How to Write a To-Do List That Works

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It's hard enough to make time to simply read a few articles about what you should be doing with your money. But actually putting that information into action? Please. Like anyone actually relishes reconciling their accounts or inventorying their belongings for insurance purposes or spending quality Halo-playing time on anything at all related to taxes.

The daunting nature of these tasks is what makes it so easy to blow them off -- for anything. Seriously, anything: The average American spends more time sifting through the fliers for credit insurance, clocks, and "delightful" figurines depicting English royalty (yes, a real offer) than reviewing the actual credit card account statement.

So what's preventing you from taking care of your important personal finance business? I have a hunch it may have something to do with your "to-do" list. That's because most of us don't know the proper way to write one in the first place.

Mental notes are a hazard to your financial health
A few years ago, productivity guru David Allen visited Motley Fool headquarters (an event preceded by a frenzied officewide desk cleanup).We talked about how to apply his organizational principles to financial tasks that so many people have a hard time getting done.

First, it's all about capturing those ideas, thoughts, small details floating around in your brain and committing them to paper or PDA. Everyone needs a road map -- a running list of stuff that needs our attention. Trying to operate without it is tantamount to reckless financial driving, Allen says.

"Not being aware of all you have to do is much like having a credit card for which you don't know the balance or the limit -- it's a lot easier to be irresponsible," he writes in his celebrated book, Getting Things Done.

Taking mental notes won't hack it. You need a reliable system -- some Post-Its in your purse (a personal favorite), a page to jot notes on your iPhone.

This is not your to-do list -- yet
That collection of thoughts and tasks, all the stuff that keeps you up at night, looks suspiciously like a to-do list. It's not.

With long-term goals like "save for retirement" or "figure out how we're doing with Junior's college fund," it's hard to figure out where to start. So we don't. The day of reckoning is so far away that we put it off, because we can.

The key to overcoming inertia (or overwhelming paralysis) is the "next action step" -- one of my favorite parts of Allen's philosophy. A long-term project is simply something that requires more steps to achieve the goal.

Those steps -- the "next action steps," in Allen's parlance -- are stepping stones to compiling your to-do list.

Turn "save more for retirement" into a task you can accomplish
As you break down a big task into bite-sized chunks, don't confuse those smaller steps (or goals) with actual "action steps." There's a specific method to making a doable to-do list.

Say, for example, you want to save more for retirement. You decide you want to contribute 3% more to your employer-sponsored retirement plan and write "Increase 401(k) contribution" on your "next action step" list.

Wrong! "Increase 401(k) contribution" is a goal, not an action step. It's too fraught with unmentioned details and logistical pit stops that make it easy to put off until later.

There are a lot of things required in order to achieve the goal.

  • First, you might need to pull your last 401(k) statement from your files to see what level you are contributing currently.
  • Then you'd need to up your contribution -- that means getting the correct form from human resources or your plan administrator.
  • To do that, you'll need to send an email requesting it.

Ta-dah! It's that last item that is your specific, tangible "next action step." That's the item that goes on today's to-do list. Once you've done that, then you can start in on the next action step, and so on.

As Mark Twain said, "The secret to getting ahead is getting started." "Email HR to get 401(k) contribution change form" is something that you can actually cross off your list in a matter of moments. (As Allen advises, don't put off anything that can be done in two minutes or less. All it does is create a psychic logjam.)

Remember, each small step toward completion represents a giant leap for your near- and long-term finances.

What are you waiting for?
What's a niggling detail on your money to-do list? What's the next thing you need to do to get it done? Share your next action step below -- and publicly commit to getting it done today.

More on getting stuff done:

Dayana Yochim is the author of The Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cash: How to Handle Money with Your Honey. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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