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How to Create a Daily To-Do List That Actually Works

Written by Cody Wheeler
Cody is a self-improvement blogger at Academy Success, the place to learn life skills you don't learn in school.
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Odds are if you’re reading this post, you probably use some kind of daily to-do list system in your life, right? The question is:

Are you using that system to its maximum potential? Are you getting everything done on that list each day?

If you’re like a lot of people, you use a daily to-do list and you may even check some things off each day, but you may be making a mistake that many people make that causes a HUGE problem not only in terms of productivity, but also in the fundamental way you organize your thoughts.

Don’t feel bad. It’s a common mistake, and I’m here to help you fix it.

The One Daily To-Do List Mistake People Make

Consider this question for a moment:

What does your daily to-do list contain?

Is it sufficiently broken down into manageable tasks and tasks only? Can you realistically complete those tasks in a maximum of a couple of hours each?

If not, then you’re not using this system to its maximum potential.

How to Construct a Proper Daily To-Do List

A daily to-do list should be composed of small tasks that don’t take more than a couple of hours at most to complete. Otherwise, they have no place here.

This is where a lot of people go wrong. They use daily to-do lists as a reminder of the things they need to work on, but their use of lists ends there. They fail to ever separate the large projects on their lists from the small tasks they need to accomplish in the first place.

The result is often a major short-term focus, and is a huge reason why a lot of people in this world fail to think in a proactive fashion. They think a day at a time, and never a step ahead.

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See, by not separating out your long-term goals and projects onto other forms of productivity documentation, the only list you’ll ever have is your daily list, which at this point is only a reminder of things to work on. It’s not being used in a productive fashion to help you achieve your goals.

Your Long-Term Productivity Lists

See, a lot of people don’t realize that there are more types of lists than just a daily list that you can use to enhance your productivity. And not only will they enhance your productivity by allowing you to keep your to-do list more clean, but they’ll also allow you to be a much more of a long-term thinker, and will allow you to take control of your day rather than let your day control you.

Consider this structure of lists to arrange your productivity, rather than the typical “daily list only” approach that most people use:

The Master Goal List

Use a Master Goal list as a long-term list of 90 – 180 days to plan out what you want to accomplish in this time frame. What do you want to get done in the next 3 – 6 months? What are the things that are going to make a huge impact on your job or your life?

These are the items that should go on your Master Goal List. This is the “What” and the “When” of what you want to accomplish.

The Weekly Project List

Use a Weekly Project list as a breakdown of the items on your Master Goal list. These items have a project focus as well, but are broken down into smaller subsets of the large items on your Master Goal list. This allows you to see what you need to work on from week to week to reach your goals and will allow you to start seeing how your daily schedule can be arranged.

Your Daily To-Do List

Then finally, use your Daily To-Do List to break down your Weekly Project List into small tasks that you can accomplish in just a couple of hours each. These tasks filter down from your other two lists to ultimately enable you to complete each project you wish to accomplish. Think of this list as the “How” of what you want to get done.

It might seem a little strange to keep three lists, but look at what happens as the result.

Suddenly, with the creation of your long-term lists, your daily list starts to mean something. It becomes free of long-term projects and you only include the small tasks that you need to get done each day to allow you to complete your projects. You’ll start crossing off everything on your daily list every day.  Then you’ll relate those back to completing your projects and eventually your ultimate long-term goals.

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The result is your daily to-do list goes from being just a dumping ground of everything you have to do, to being a key driver of your productivity and success.

6 Things You Can Put on Your Daily Checklist

Starting in the morning and into the rest of your day, here’re 6 examples of what you can put on your daily checklist to move your day forward and stay productive.

1. Early Physical Activity

This doesn’t have to be an hour-long session in the gym. You can do that if that’s your thing, but simple stretching, a 10-minute walk, or a short 5 to 7 minute exercise routine can be enough to get your body moving and ready for the day ahead.

You just need something to wake up your body and get the blood flow going. One example would be Tony Robbins, who jumps into his pool and swims a couple of laps.

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2. Eat Some (Healthy) Food

Food gets energy in your body early in the morning and wakes up your mind in a different way than exercise.

You need food in the morning, and something healthy will offer the best benefits for your mind and body.

Even if you work sitting down for most of the day, you should still plan on including a couple of healthy snacks on your daily checklist. Bring some nuts, a piece of fruit, or some granola to act as a pick-me-up when you’re feeling tired.

3. Do Your Favorite Unproductive Activity

You are a human being and we need fun, unproductive, and lazy time. If you spend 10 to 20 minutes in the morning doing your favorite unproductive activity, you will settle down “the instant gratification monkey” everyone has inside.[1]

Once you’re done with it, you will clear it from your mind and carry on. Some people watch YouTube, some play Minesweeper or BubbleSpinner, but you can do whatever you like. That’s why it’s your favorite unproductive activity and why it should have a small place on your daily checklist.

4. Personal Reflection Time


is just one thing you can do for your personal reflection time. You can also spend a couple of minutes centering yourself for the upcoming day or writing a page in a journal.

Some people focus on gratitude,[2] but anything you include in personal reflection time is time well spent.

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This time can take the form of a prayer, a minute of silence, sitting down in the car and doing nothing, etc.

5. Time for Reading

When they get to work, most people first sit down, open their browser, and randomly scroll the internet for half an hour.

If you’re looking to be more productive, you should sit down and open up a book or an article that is related to your field of work. Once you read for a few minutes, your brain will focus on that information, and it will start producing creative ideas and solutions.

Reading is also a great thing to have on your daily checklist for after work when you’re winding down.

6. Downtime

Since I’m a writer, taking a nap in the middle of the day to rest is a possibility and almost a daily occurrence for me (sometimes I take a long walk instead).

You will get tired during the day, and when that happens, don’t try to push through it. Simply stop working and go rest.

The problem here is that nobody ever taught us how to rest, and Western culture looks at that as laziness. There is a major difference between the two, but the most important thing when resting is that you 100% rest. Stop working, and do your best to stop thinking of work.

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This may mean you listen to music or practice meditating for a few minutes. Do whatever works for you.

Many people find it necessary to schedule downtime as part of their daily checklist. That way, you know when and for how long to rest to make the most of your day.

Bottom Line

Limit your checklist to the essentials in order to super boost your productivity. If you commit to completing your daily to-do list, it will bring you massive results. Every journey, no matter how long, always begins the same way—with a single step.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com


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