Getting up at 6:00 am in the morning, you get ready to go down your daily routine. After showering, you grab yourself a hearty breakfast, catch the news by reading the morning paper, and then start your work. You are feeling relaxed and happy. You have very high expectations for the day, and you want to be as productive with your to-do list as possible.
Fast forward to 2 pm the same day. The work seems a lot more rushed, and you barely had a chance to take a lunch break. You start to feel a bit stressed and tired because of the busy schedule. Besides, it seems that you have to go back to certain tasks and fix them because you didn’t have time to focus on them properly.
You wish you’d find a reset button so that you could start your day from all over with a different strategy.
What you probably experienced was this: you planned your day the night before, and you felt you were on top of your tasks. However, things started to go wrong when you kept adding tasks to your list, and finally, your task list was many miles long. Your to-do list also contained tasks that were pretty much impossible to get done in one day.
The other point which contributed to your hectic and stressful day was not understanding how much time completing a particular task would take and when to execute the task. If you had this information, it would have been easier to figure out the right timing for executing the task.
Table of Contents
- What Is a To-Do List?
- The Difference Between A Good To-Do and A Bad To-Do List?
- What Is Usually on a To-Do List?
- What People Get Wrong About a To-Do List
- How to Create a To-Do List That Works For You
- 1. Take Your Time to Plan the List
- 2. Write Tasks, Not Goals
- 3. Keep To-Do Lists Brief
- 4. Put a Limit on Items
- 5. Use Checklists for Complex Tasks
- 6. Batch Similar Tasks
- 7. Track the Recurring Tasks
- 8. Prioritize Your Tasks
- 9. Add Tasks When They're Fresh
- 10. Give Yourself Deadlines
- 11. Create a "Done" List
- 12. Define the Tasks in More Detail
- 13. Do Some Prep Work in Advance
- 14. Automate the Maintenance
- 15. Be Comfortable With Revising Your To-Do List
- 16. Know Your Task Types and Your Schedule
- 17. Shield of Protection
- 18. Count on Time for Transitions
- Best To-Do List Apps To Improve Your Productivity
- The Bottom Line
What Is a To-Do List?
A to-do list is a list of tasks or items that you have to accomplish during a specific period of time e.g. a day, a week, or even a portion of the day. These lists often have manageable tasks and help people to be productive and avoid procrastination.
Productivity to-do lists often have two formats; you either have important tasks at the top and less important ones at the bottom or you could also design the list with tasks lined up in a way from easily manageable to more demanding. This makes it easier to set reminders and stay organized.
Ideally, the important items on the list should be on the top whereas the lesser important ones can rest at the bottom. Having a to-do list means having all of your important tasks and deadlines in one place so that they are easier to take care of.
Your to-do lists can range from project management to shopping lists and even personal development goals.
The Difference Between A Good To-Do and A Bad To-Do List?
Just having a to-do list is not enough, it needs to be an effective one that helps you stay organized. This is where the difference between good to-do lists and bad to-do lists comes into play.
Good To-Do List
A good to-do list has the following elements:
- Easily achievable tasks
- Detailed task descriptions
- Proper planning
- Flexibility for any delays
- Having a distinction between objectives and goals
This makes it easy to get tasks done without being overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed can cause you to procrastinate and the whole idea of a to-do list is to make tasks look achievable, not overwhelming.
Bad To-Do List
On the contrary, a bad to-do list has ambiguous tasks with no proper details or deadlines, burdensome wording, and no proper distinction between goals and objectives.
For example, a bad to-do list would have tasks like ‘get your life together’, ‘stop sleeping in’, and ‘come up with three project ideas ASAP’. These titles do not induce hope or will to complete the task. Instead, use titles like ‘make your bed to improve discipline’, ‘try sleeping an hour early tonight’ or ‘write down your thoughts on how you can attempt the project’.
What Is Usually on a To-Do List?
There are many things that can be incorporated into a to-do list. The first thing you need to do is ascertain what your list aims to do. Some to-do lists can be shopping lists, others can be deadlines, etc. You can even store them in different formats, from Google Calendar reminders to spreadsheets and Google Tasks. Sometimes it can even be as simple as a random piece of paper you scribbled on. There are also programs available on the internet that help you design such lists such as the Microsoft To-Do List program.
Most of the time, to-do lists have the following elements:
- Important tasks that need to be done
- Purchases that need to be made
- Various goals for self-improvement purposes etc.
- Timed tasks with deadlines, so you don’t lose track of things
- Keeping track of progress
Hence if you’re looking to make a to-do list, here are some things that might be included in specific types of lists:
Shopping lists often include items that need to be bought, be it groceries, clothes, or any other items of personal or office use. The best way to itemize it is from important to less important things required. You may further segregate the list as per the stores in which the listed items will be available. It is also suggested that budgeting this list helps you manage your money.
Project lists are for project management and keeping deadlines in check. These lists are best made with calendars or deadline markers. You can also compartmentalize the items on the list to make the tasks easier to achieve.
Personal Goal List
This type of list is best created with vague deadlines and focuses on making little improvements if any. Start off with achievable goals that slowly build up as you work your way through the lists.
What People Get Wrong About a To-Do List
Do you really know what you are supposed to do?
How much time did you actually spend on planning your day—was it just 5 minutes while the television set was distracting you?
If so, then this was probably the biggest reason why your day became so stressful.
When you plan your days, you should truly understand the tasks you are about to d and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary, especially with important tasks, because you are able to make progress with the tasks that matter the most.
The lack of time spent on planning will also be shown as too many big tasks stuffed into your daily list. If you haven’t broken down the tasks into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done during the day. This, in turn, makes you beat yourself up for not completing your task list.
Finally, don’t treat creating a task list like some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s task list, the more likely the list is going to be realistic and less stressful for you.
How to Create a To-Do List That Works For You
To make a list that you can actually accomplish the next day, do the following:
1. Take Your Time to Plan the List
Don’t rush creating your task list—spend some time on the planning phase. If required, isolate yourself for the planning part by going to a separate room in your home (or even going outside). This way, you can actually think the tasks through before you put them on your to-do list.
Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it.
2. Write Tasks, Not Goals
You should have separate lists for your tasks and your goals. The idea is to not put goals on your task list at all.
While tasks can help you lead to your goals, goals are larger desires and not something that you can achieve over the course of the day. For example, “learn to speak French” is a goal; however, you can break that into a task by saying “read French content for 15 minutes” or “watch a movie in French.”
This also extends to objectives, too. You can see these as milestones. Going back to the example of speaking French, an objective can be, “discuss my favorite foods with someone in French.” It’s the desired outcome that you’re looking for from your practice.
3. Keep To-Do Lists Brief
Here, brief means scannable in that you can quickly look over at the list and know what needs to get done. How you can do this is by focusing on the keywords of specific tasks and not dragging them out. For example, say your garage is a mess and you want to clean it up. Instead of writing a lengthy sentence, keep it short and write something like “clean garage for 30 min.” or simply “clean garage.”
With this strategy, you’re spending less time writing the task down when making the to-do list. Furthermore, you’re relying on trigger words to get your mind to recall specific details for that task.
4. Put a Limit on Items
If you find breaking your list into two parts too much, I’ll suggest brevity to be a virtue when making these lists. You can set any number of items, but the key is that you do have a set limit in mind. Some people have no more than seven while others go as low as three. Do what makes you feel comfortable.
The idea behind this is to narrow in on the most important tasks that you need to accomplish that day. Of course, there are other things that you’ll be doing during the day, and that’s fine, but you want to prioritize the items that on your to do list before the day is done.
5. Use Checklists for Complex Tasks
If you’re already making narrow lists but are putting in tougher tasks, my suggestion is to break that task down. Whether it’s full-on steps you need to take or jotting down important details that need to be present is up to you.
Either way, this allows you to ensure that you’re getting everything done the proper way and that you’re not missing any key details or steps.
6. Batch Similar Tasks
Look at your list, and find out if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way, you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier.
7. Track the Recurring Tasks
You might have recurring tasks on your list, but do you know how much time they take to accomplish?
If you don’t, make sure you do some time tracking to figure it out. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your schedule when the task could be executed.
8. Prioritize Your Tasks
Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends on your situation, but I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day.
Understand that certain tasks are very quick, so it’s easier to include more and organize your tasks on certain days. Just make sure that there are also important tasks on the list so that you are able to move on with your bigger projects.
Tackle MITs First
When planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible.
MIT is the “most important task.” Another way to look at this is to tackle the largest and most intimidating task first. Why you want to do this goes back to how our brain works.
You may feel compelled to do the easier tasks first before getting to the bigger task, but the problem is that these tasks—even the easy ones—drain your energy. Furthermore, if you have a really big task to complete, chances are that’s going to be on your mind over the course of the day. That means you’re spending more energy just thinking about it.
All of that wouldn’t be a problem if that big intimidating task was dealt with first thing in the morning.
Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks
Go through your commitments and decide if you really need each one.
For instance, I was an active member of our local computer club in my hometown, but then I realized that I didn’t have enough time for that activity anymore. Although I’m still a member of the club, I don’t participate in its activities anymore. This has eliminated the tasks related to that commitment.
9. Add Tasks When They’re Fresh
Another strategy is to assign yourself tasks even when you are working on something else. Keep in mind it’s not something you have to do right now, but this can help with people who are struggling to think about what to focus on next.
This is along the same lines as when you hear something interesting and you write it down. It’s a wise thing to do as it saves you the bother of having to dwell on that idea rather than focusing on the task at hand. It also saves you from having to recall what the task is if you’re the type to write up the next day’s to-do list at the end of the day.
10. Give Yourself Deadlines
Work expands to fill time allotted.
It’s an old philosophy that still rings true with how we are productive. For example, say you’re assigned to write a report, and you’re given a week to do it. You’ll likely work on it steadily throughout the week. Or if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll put it off until the night before and finish it.
But what if you’re given that same task and only allotted an hour to complete it? You’ll likely get the report done, but you’ll prioritize the main, important points and highlight those rather than fill it with unnecessary fluff.
The whole point of this is that with your goals and the items on your to-do list, you want to have deadlines. When it comes to to-do lists, my suggestion is to give yourself a day to complete the tasks there. This is enough pressure and incentive for you to work hard on them.
11. Create a “Done” List
Another interesting approach to consider is to have a “done” list. This is a list of the tasks that you’ve completed from your to-do list. Many people find it satisfying to merely cross an item off their list and be done with it, but depending on what you’re putting on those lists, a done list could be inspiring.
Imagine if you are someone who places above-average difficult tasks on your to-do lists, activities that require an hour or two to complete properly. This can inspire you to do more if, after a day of working, you notice just how much you accomplished over the course of the day via this list.
12. Define the Tasks in More Detail
Don’t just include a task like “build a website” on your list; make sure you have broken the task into smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are, the easier it is to accomplish them before the due date.
13. Do Some Prep Work in Advance
Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance.
For instance, I write the outlines for my guest posts on Sundays so that it’s easier (and faster) for me to start writing the actual posts when I wake up. With a little bit of prep work, I speed things up and make sure tasks get done when the right day comes.
14. Automate the Maintenance
Naturally, you could use a pen and paper approach to your personal to-do list, but try to take advantage of technology, too. In fact, try to find a tool that takes care of the maintenance of your task list for you. My preferred tool is Nozbe, but there are other task management apps that you can try, too.
15. Be Comfortable With Revising Your To-Do List
What happens when you have planned a task, but you are unable to take care of it? Do you have a plan B in place? If not, try to figure out the alternative action you can take in these scenarios.
Depending on your overall mindset, another good strategy is to look at your to-do list and make changes to it. If you’re practicing the previous strategy, there may be a possibility that your to-do list is getting lengthy and you’re setting unrealistic expectations that you can finish it all.
By giving yourself the opportunity to revise your to-do list, your allowing yourself to spread out your tasks rather than have them clumped up. This helps your mindset as you’re not overwhelmed by the list.
16. Know Your Task Types and Your Schedule
Finally, when you plan your day, ask yourself these questions:
What else do I have on my schedule?
This question refers to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are traveling, make sure that your list reflects this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you’ll get only a fraction of them done.
Is the task a gatekeeper?
This question asks if the task is blocking other tasks that need to be executed.
Every once in a while, we might have a task that has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then can you take care of the following tasks.
When you focus on creating your task list in a focused manner, you’ll be able to spot the gatekeepers easily.
Do I have icebergs on my list?
This question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought (compare them to icebergs, where only the tip of the iceberg is above the water, but the majority of the ice is below).
Once again, when you focus enough on your task list during the creation phase, it’s easier to spot these “icebergs” and split the tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Is the task distraction-proof?
Not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.
For instance, I can check my Twitter stream or do simple blog maintenance even when I’m around my family. These tasks are distraction-proof, and I can take care of them, even if I don’t have my full attention on them.
17. Shield of Protection
Build a shield of protection around your task list so that as few tasks as possible can land to your list and that the number of items on your list won’t increase during the day.
Try to eliminate the sources for your tasks
This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list.
make your list a closed one
I learned this concept by reading Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list.
When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.
18. Count on Time for Transitions
Understand that transition times also eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding some extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.
Best To-Do List Apps To Improve Your Productivity
Making to-do lists has become even easier since there are so many apps that promote productivity and list-making. Not only do these apps make your list portable and on-hand at all times, but they’ve incorporated different reward mechanisms to make you feel better about completing your tasks. Here are three of the best to-do list apps to use:
Remember The Milk
is a to-do list app that may seem like it’s only for groceries, but it is one of the most popular listing apps available. It helps you make various lists with different sorts of features and it is accessible on laptops, phones, and other devices.
The Asana app makes working easier as it manages projects, tasks, and deadlines with its productivity features. It also gives you the option to make lists with deadlines and keep track of all your work.
is a productivity and focus app that helps you make lists or goals of things you need to get done and helps put timers on the task as well. It rewards you by planting a tree in your virtual garden for each complete task. This makes you feel good about yourself and your progress.
The Bottom Line
If you still have a hard time achieving your daily tasks on your to-do list, make sure that you analyze the reasons why this happened. If anything, do not beat yourself up for not finishing your task list.
No one is perfect, and we can learn from our mistakes.
It takes a bit of practice to create a great task list. However, once you learn to put all the pieces together, things are going to look much better, and you’ll be more productive overall.
Featured photo credit: J. Kelly Brito via unsplash.com