Welcome to the next post in my Re-prioritise mini-series, part of the Looking-Glass Translations productivity programme!

Now we’ve discussed the basics of priority-setting, it’s time to put this into practice.

And that means thinking about how to-do lists work.

Most people use to-do lists to organise their time, whether mentally, on paper or using the latest time management apps.

But it’s all too easy to turn what should be a useful tool into a full-time job.

Who hasn’t added completed tasks to their list to feel productive?

And haven’t we all complained there’s not enough time to do it all? (If you really believe that, you should probably read this).

We rarely use our to-do lists effectively.


So let’s get back to basics.

What is a to-do list?

On the face of it, it’s a list of things to do (I did say basics!), but it can be so much more. Prepared well, a to-do list can be a measured road map to achieving your goals and a powerful motivator that helps you to organise your time.

What does it look like?

That depends! If you’re like most people, your list is just that – a loooong, boring list… but it doesn’t have to be. Mine is a four/five-way grid, for instance. And why stop there? Spruce it up! Use colour, use pictures, use whatever will motivate you to actually get something done once you’ve written it.

What can go wrong?

Tons. From haphazardly throwing together a list and overwhelming yourself, to procrastinating (too much sprucing?) and losing track of what you’re meant to be doing, the to-do list will give you just enough rope to hang by if you let it.

Why should translators/interpreters care?

It’s nearly always the simple things that trip us up. As a marketing translator, you may know your subject and have years of copywriting experience, but if you can’t organise your time, you’ll consistently work harder than you need to. You can take control, and a decent to-do list is the perfect way to do this.


6 tips for a killer to-do list

Here’s what you need to think about when putting together your to-do list. After a few weeks, you’ll find it comes quite naturally:


1. Work out your goals.

A to-do list is nothing if you don’t know your goals and motivations. You only have so many hours in a day, so make sure the tasks on your list will take you a step closer to your goals.

2. Be ruthless.

Remember I talked about priorities in the last post? This is where they come into play. Don’t fill your list with busy work – only add tasks to it that are urgent, important or both. Then work through them using the same principles – start with the big stuff, then work your way down to small chores.

3. Start small.

Chances are, you think you can get more done than you can. I generally find that three or four well thought-out tasks is the most I can manage in a full day of translating, and this changes according to my health, mood and time constraints. If you really struggle with this, track your time for an idea of what you really get up to.

4. Keep a master list and categorise.

Use the master list to keep track of everything, then pick a few items from each category to work on each week. Mine includes banking/finance, admin, home chores and work assignments. Translator Marta Stelmaszak uses a similar, but more detailed approach, which you can read about here.

(She also talks about how she gets things done in this snazzy interview with yours truly.)

5. Procrastinate properly.

We all do it from time to time, but colour-coding your to-do list or transferring it from app to app isn’t a productive use of your time. When you can’t get in the mood to focus on something big, either break the task down into bite-sized pieces, or tackle some easy wins – tasks further down the pecking order that are super simple, but will still make you feel like you achieved something.

6. Be green.

I love paper lists, but lists are dynamic and change constantly. As a linguist and lover of stationary, I make sure I only use paper when I really need to – by keeping my master to-do list on paper and my day-to-day lists on a whiteboard. This is handy when I need to make last-minute changes or jot down fleeting ideas before they fade back into my subconscious.

Bonus tip: If a whiteboard isn’t your style, why not try an app?



Put these tips into practice and you’ll soon be back on speaking terms with your to-do list.

But don’t get too comfortable! I’ll be showing you how to take your list to the next level over the next few posts.


Can’t wait to read more? Try this list on for size:


How do you manage your to-do list? Are you into paper or pixels? And what other tips would you add? Let me know in the comments!


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