An effective To-do list can save you from getting busy but not doing what is important.
Many of us get caught in this trap, and it can happen at work or at home.
To try to fix this issue, many of us use a to-do list, thinking that it will solve our productivity problems. But the truth is, a to-do list by itself won’t solve this issue.
It can even make it worse!
Seeing those crosses or checks can make us think we are accomplishing a lot. But it often can be a symptom of the same – doing busy work instead of the work that moved us toward our goals or priorities.
That’s what this article is about. We will discuss 15 Tips for having a more effective to-do list.
How to have a more effective to-do list?
- Know what’s important
- Plan ahead
- Choose your method
- Use a master list – Then pull from it
- Be realistic on your to-do list
- Prioritize your tasks
- Chunk your tasks
- Categorize your to-do list
- Don’t be afraid to delegate, delay or drop things
- Set due dates and deadlines for each task
- Share your to-do list or make it visible
- Monitor your progress
- Do your most important tasks (not your easy ones)
- Keep your daily list short
- New task pop into your head? Write it down!
How your To-Do List Hinder Your Success
A poorly structured to-do list can limit your productivity. How?
It’s not focused on your priorities.
You were hired to accomplish certain tasks (or you have certain priorities at home). If your task and its order isn’t focused on what is important (or you don’t even know), then you are going to waste a lot of time doing what isn’t important.
Some use to-do lists to feel accomplished.
They feel good crossing items off the list. To do that, often easy tasks and unnecessary tasks are added to the to-do list so they can be crossed off. You end up finishing a lot of tasks but not accomplishing what’s important.
You overwhelm yourself and become unmotivated
Making a giant list can be overwhelming and you end up not doing anything or giving up after a few tasks.
So, what do we do?
There is no one “right” way to make an effective to-do list that fits all.
Successful and influential people create their task lists differently.
Some use paper, digital formats, and online programs and apps. Others use their calendar for task scheduling. Some use mix of them in different ways.
You just need to find a system that works for you. Whichever you choose, here are 15 tips that will guide you in creating an effective to-do list.
1. Know what is important
One of the main reasons your to-do list may be ineffective is that you aren’t doing what is important.
Each person is hired to accomplish something in their job. Everyone has core tasks and responsibilities.
If you don’t know what is important, how can you make sure what you are doing on your list is important?
The first step for effective time management and for an effective to-do list is to make sure you know what is important first.
Also Read: 3 Ways to Improve Work Performance
2. Plan ahead
Sometimes we waste so much time when we get to our desks in the morning trying to think and decide on how we will start our day.
We try to think about what we need to do and what’s important – but it’s often hard to do at the moment. It’s easy to get caught up in urgent tasks or easy tasks that really aren’t that important.
It’s also easy to delay and waste time instead of starting the actual work.
For many, the morning is their most effective time of the day to be more productive – why waste it trying to “figure out” what you need to do?
The afternoon or evening before, sit down, think about your priorities, and list all the tasks that need to be accomplished the next day. Using a pen and paper is an effective way to start the process (or use your digital app).
Planning a week ahead can also be helpful and effective. This really helps you focus on the big picture and makes sure the tasks you do are the most important.
You do your planning every Sunday. Pull important tasks on your master list, which we are going to talk about in tip number four.
Ask yourself, what task needs to be done to accomplish my priorities and goals?
Tip: When planning your to-do list, find a calm place where you can focus. Being alone while doing this also helps you to think more clearly.
Also Read: The Importance of Time Management
3. Choose your method
Choosing the most suitable method for how you are going to create your to-do list makes a difference.
Trust me, you will have a hard time sticking to your plan if you do not choose the best method that fits you and your needs.
Using digital, traditional paper or calendar are three kinds of methods that will help you create an effective to-do list.
Let’s talk about these three methods.
Digital to-do list
Digital to-do lists give you a lot of flexibility. With a few clicks, you can delegate tasks, update them quickly, and use them as a reminder for upcoming tasks. However, this requires some software compatibility.
Traditional paper to-do list
A paper to-do list helps you think carefully and improves your thought process. It also lessens distractions like notifications that most digital to-do list has. Due to its simplicity and availability, you can create your to-do list anywhere. However, using this method can slow you down.
Some people use calendars to schedule their tasks. Instead of having an open-ended list of tasks, they block a chunk of time to get it done.
You’ll begin each day with a specific schedule that specifies what you’ll work on and when. However, this method requires careful planning.
Some use mix of both the calendar and to-do list.
As we have said, it doesn’t matter whichever you choose. However, whether you use a calendar or not, it is wise to schedule blocks of time to work on certain tasks.
Remember, the goal is to find a method that fits you, not only the ones with advantages.
4. Use A Master List – Then Pull From it
Make a list of all the tasks you can think of.
It’s where you write down everything, no matter how important it is, when it needs to be done, how long it will take, or what project it belongs to.
This doesn’t mean you will work from this list, but it’s wise to have a spot to have everything written down.
When making your weekly or daily list, you can often pull from this list what you need to get done for the next day. This approach is connected to our number 15 tip.
5. Be realistic on your to-do list
We’ve all been there before. We sit down, plan and create our to-do list for tomorrow, the whole week, or even the entire month.
We try to be realistic, but somehow we always end up with a list that is impossible to complete. Some of us realized this in the middle of performing our tasks.
For instance, if you know that you only have an hour to complete your daily tasks, it doesn’t make sense to include things like “write a 10,000 words blog post” or “learn to speak Mandarin.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should always play it safe. It’s important to challenge ourselves from time to time, but we should ensure that the majority of items on our to-do list are things that we know we can achieve.
By being realistic in your expectations, you can avoid the frustration of feeling like you’re always playing catch-up.
In addition, an effective to-do list should be flexible to allow for changes in circumstances.
6. Prioritize your tasks
At first glance, it may seem straightforward to create a to-do list. Simply jot down all the tasks you need to complete in no particular order, and there you go, you can start working away.
However, this approach is often inefficient and can lead to frustration. Prioritizing tasks is crucial to creating an effective to-do list.
Some tasks are more urgent and important than others and should be given priority accordingly. Put first things first.
In his book Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy discusses the importance of doing the most important, hardest task first – to eat that frog.
If you do the most important tasks first, everything else in the day seems more manageable.
Waiting to do it doesn’t get any easier; it only worsens.
People prioritize differently – some may star items, number them, put letters, write the most important tasks (MITs) at top or even use a highlighter pen – whatever works for you, just do it.
What is important is that you know what your most important tasks are and you do them first thing.
In addition, focusing on one task at a time can help to improve concentration and prevent us from getting overwhelmed.
7. Chunk your tasks
Putting similar tasks together on your to-do list improves your productivity.
It allows you to concentrate on a single task and avoid jumping from one task to another without finishing. You may end up getting distracted and overwhelmed by doing multiple tasks.
Set a time to call prospects, check emails, and complete reports.
Chunking reduces the problems caused by multitasking and replaces them with a feeling of being productive.
8. Categorize your to-do list
Categorize your to-do list and make it into smaller portions.
Categorize it – by task type and importance, or even use the Covey time management matrix (I often refer to it as the Covey square) to organize your tasks. (The Covey square comes from Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
You may even want to put the tasks you want to do that day on a separate list rather than mix it with everything else. In that way, it doesn’t overwhelm you.
Some people choose 2,3 or even 5 of the most important tasks to focus on during the day, and that’s it. They ensure they get those things done – anything else is just a bonus.
An effective to-do list will show you which tasks are the most important for the day.
It will tell you right away where to spend your time and energy.
Find what works for you.
9. Don’t be afraid to delegate, delay or drop things
See that 4th quadrant above?
If it’s unimportant, it likely doesn’t need to be done. Otherwise, it would be important, wouldn’t it?
If it’s unimportant for you and your priorities (but maybe to someone else), can you delegate it? If it’s unimportant right now, can you delay it to focus on more important tasks?
As much as possible, delete or delegate or delay as many unimportant tasks as you can. Delegating is simply assigning the task to someone else (but don’t confuse delegation with abdication).
This could be a colleague, friend, or family member. Some tasks aren’t important to you or to your job but need to be done.
For example, for proofreading some reports, you could assign one of your team members who are good at proofreading to do this task.
In your personal life, suppose you need to buy groceries. In that case, you can delegate this task to someone else in your family member, or maybe you can book a grocery delivery.
You’d be surprised how much lighter your to-do list will feel after completing these steps.
Also Read: The Definitive Guide to Delegation
10. Set due dates and deadlines for each task
Setting due dates and deadlines can be an effective way to help you accomplish the tasks on your list.
Sometimes, simply writing down a list of things to do is not enough to ensure they will get done. Adding a deadline or due date can help with that.
It can help to provide a sense of urgency and ensure that tasks are completed in a timely manner.
Of course, not every task can have a specific due date and deadline. But for those that can, setting a due date and deadline is one of the most important steps to ensure your to-do list gets done.
Think about how quickly you’d pay your credit card bill if you didn’t have a due date. How soon would you pay for your car registration?
A to-do list without a due date is a wish list!
11. Share your to-do list or make it visible
Sharing your to-do list with somebody else is one way to make it more effective. You might think that this is unusual, but this can hold you accountable and force you to do the tasks and get help when needed.
You can share with a coworker, family member, or even a friend.
Another way to have a more effective to-do list is by making it visible. This doesn’t mean that you must write your list on a large sheet of paper.
If you use traditional paper as your to-do list, you can post it to the place you most often look.
For example, suppose you are in your office and comfortable using paper as your list. In that case, you can post it on your table or anywhere you most often look.
It can be under or on top of your computer monitor or maybe on your desk near where you usually place your mobile phone.
On the other side, a digital to-do list has a huge advantage in sharing and making your list visible. You just need to make it open on your tab, set reminders, or allow your team to view it.
These ideas will help remind you of the tasks that you wrote and can help prevent forgetfulness.
Tip: If you are going to use a paper to-do list, if possible, avoid posting in multiple places. It works sometimes, but it requires more time searching for it, or worse, you forget about it.
12. Monitor your progress
As you go along your day – ask yourself: “What quadrant am I in?” or “Am I doing what is most important?”
Take a moment to reflect on your progress at the end of each day, week, or even in the middle of the day.
This will help you to see the big picture, what tasks you are making headway on, and what tasks might need to be prioritized in the future.
If you constantly find yourself in the 3rd and 4th quadrants, you know you need to make adjustments.
13. Do your most important tasks first (Not your easy ones)
If you do your most important tasks first(MITs) and not your easy ones, your day will go smoother. You will probably win the day.
This gives you more time to handle the remaining tasks that might come up in the afternoon.
One benefit is that just in case your day doesn’t go well, you have already accomplished that day.
Identify your MITs and get things done.
14. Keep your daily list short
One way to have a more effective to-do list is by keeping your list short.
It’s important to keep a daily list as short as possible so it’s not overwhelming. Most of the time, having a giant list leaves you pending tasks.
This will give you a negative psychological effect that prevents you from enjoying your time.
Pull from your weekly list or master list and ensure it’s important.
15. New task pop into your head? Write it down!
This seemingly small step can help you stay focused and remember everything you need to do.
If you wait to write it down, you may forget or you use your mental energy keeping it in your head trying not to forget.
Grab your to-do list or open your app (or if needed, have a pad or paper for ideas that pop into your head) and write it down.
Make sure those tasks are important. Here is where your master list will grow.
You’ll be glad you did!
Bonus: Other ideas and to-do list strategies
Now that you have learned some tips on how to have a more effective To-do list, let us look at some other To-do list strategies that might work for you.
The Kanban Method
If you like watching your projects in progress, this to-do list technique is perfect for you. This method usually requires a board and post-it notes (or a digital app).
Create three columns with three different titles. You can use marker or masking tape to separate those columns.
From the left column, title it “To-do,” in the middle title it “Work”, and in the last column title it “Done”.
But it is up to you, what title you want to use. Write your tasks on post-notes then paste on the appropriate column.
The goal is to identify the tasks you need to do, tasks you are working on, and those that are already done.
The Matrix System
We already mentioned this in our number 8 Tip. This strategy consists of four quadrants:
- Urgent and Important (1st quadrant)
- Not Urgent and Important (2nd quadrant)
- Urgent and Not Important (3rd quadrant)
- Not Urgent and Not Important (4th quadrant)
This approach helps you determine which to-do items need your attention. You will find them in the first and second quadrants.
But as much as possible, don’t wait for your tasks to get to the “Urgent and Important” quadrant. Sometimes we get stuck in the first quadrant because of poor time management.
Keeping your tasks in the second quadrant(“Not Urgent and Important”), shows that you are planning things ahead before they come urgent and important.
It might take a while. Just keep working at it.
It might take a while for you to figure out your flow and what works best for you.
And don’t beat yourself up if you keep finding yourself unproductive at first. Just work at doing better next time.
You should be proud that you are at least recognizing it and working toward fixing it.
Your to-do lists aren’t there to make sure you finish everything. Instead, they are there to ensure we spend our time and attention on the most important tasks.
As a side note, there is a free online app that I have used before and found effective. It’s called Week plan (I’m not an affiliate – I just found it helpful). It’s basically a drag-and-drop to-do list/week planner.
The author of this app is a fan of the 4 quadrants, so the app is based on it – you can actually put your tasks in the different quadrants if desired.
Do you have any other tips for having an effective to-do list? Let us know!