There is a story which goes something like this. In the early 20th century, steel magnate Charles Schwab, wanting to increase the efficiency of his business, called in a well known consultant and asked for input. The consultant promised to work with Schwab executives giving them advice which would revolutionize their work output.  The consultant’s only request for payment was to be paid what Mr. Schwab thought the advice was worth – after 90 days of applying the new information.

At the end of 90 days, the consultant walked into Mr. Schwab’s office to receive his payment – and was surprised when the steel magnate wrote out a check for $25,000. (A hundred years ago, that was a huge amount of money)!

So what was the advice that was worth so much?

The consultant had advised each executive to – at the end of each day – write a list of 6 things to be accomplished the following day. As the new day started, they were to work each item until it was completed, and then start on the next. Anything left over was to go to the next day’s list.

This idea seems to be too simple to be worth much, but it has empowered many people to accomplish great things. Mary Kay Ash, who started the Mary Kay Cosmetics company contributed much of her success to working this plan. She taught her sales ladies that more than 6 items were overwhelming – and less than 6 were too few. It was really good to have something to pass onto the next day’s agenda.

So the “to-do” list takes on major significance, but it has to be done the right way.

If you are comfortable with planning, you may find comfort in writing out your to-do list – over and over again. To-do lists in theory are helpful tools that can make you more productive than you otherwise might be. But while to-do lists are generally intended to help you complete more work, sometimes they can unfortunately end up having the precise opposite effect and make you get less done.

How can that be?

This happens if you are the sort of person who is continuously writing to-do lists and who is never actually following them. For some a to-do list can actually be a very convenient way to put off getting real work done and thus a form of procrastination. And if you’re constantly writing to-do lists that don’t get done, then this can just be a little disheartening.

So to-do lists are valuable, but only when done the correct way. Here’s how to make sure you do do them correctly…

Keep Them Short

One way to help yourself complete your to-do list is to keep it short – stick to 6 items. If your to-do list is too long, then it will not only be daunting to take on, but it will also be unlikely that you’re going to complete the whole thing. Thus you would be better off making a shorter to-do list that you can actually complete – even if it means leaving a few things for tomorrow.

Put the Most Fun/Easiest Item First

Many people think that they should do the hardest and most difficult tasks first and will put them at the top of their lists. While this might seem like a good idea in theory, it can actually end up being a negative thing if it causes you to put off doing the work.

Sometimes when your projects are involved and require great concentration, you might jog your thought processes by starting with an item which is easy or fun. If your first item is a hard one and you don’t feel exceptionally alert first thing in the morning, you’re more likely to end up putting off the work. In that case, it would be better to put an easy task right at the start so that you can ease yourself into the work.

Don’t Complete the Last Task

This might seem counterintuitive, but to make yourself more productive tomorrow one of the best things you can do is to be slightly less productive today and to leave the last task started but incomplete. The reason for this is that the human brain hates unfinished work. So in other words, the fact that something is started will mean you feel compelled to complete it at the start of the next day. At which point you’ll then be in a productive state of mind.

The main idea is to make your list of 6 items you want to accomplish the next day. And the next day, get started. As with any plan, each person has to tweak it to fit their personality and work style. But most people find this simple idea a great way to improve productivity.

You might want to try it for yourself.