To-Do Lists: A Practical Guide
To-Do Lists: A Practical Guide

To-Do Lists: A Practical Guide

Ticking off an item from your to-do list is incredibly satisfying. It confirms to you that you are getting your tasks completed on time and helps keep you on track when you are juggling multiple duties at the same time.

Many techniques help you make the most of your to-do list. Perhaps you keep a mental note of tasks to be finished by the end of the day. Or you may write down a list, allowing you to physically cross out a completed task. Or possibly you even be using specific project management software to keep your projects on track.

Whatever your choice, the humble to-do list is a widely used, yet highly underrated, tool at your disposal.

For some people, the to-do list has fallen out of style. Its sheer simplicity means that it can be overlooked in favor of newer technologies.

It is also often ignored as a tool for collaborative working.

But it has been a foundational tool of self-management for eons because it works.

Instead of tossing the to-do list in the trash, perhaps it is time to change the way you use it.

This article explores how you can make the most of your to-do list; it provides practical examples of managing your to-do lists effectively.

It all begins at the beginning.

What Is a To-Do List and Why Do People Use Them?

In its most basic format, a to-do list is simply a list of all the tasks you need to complete.

It is an organizational tool that helps you regain and retain control over your workload and work far more productively.

With one, you can improve your organizational skills by externalizing important information and records, leaving more brainpower to do the tasks themselves.

But not all externalization methods are created equal. If you have a stream of Post-it Notes littered around your desk, you know well the dreaded worry that you have missed an important deadline or forgotten to send a specific email.

To-do lists place everything you need to know (such as deadline details, contact details, project information) in a single place.

You can manage your to-do list by breaking it down into subcategories. These help you to identify any pressing deadlines, long-term or regular activities and any quick tasks that you may need to do.

If you work in a job role that requires significant multi-tasking, a to-do list is a necessity. Without it, you would spend so much mental energy on tracking deadlines and completion dates you would have none left for completing your tasks well.

Unfortunately, many people struggle to use their to-do lists effectively.

They may spend time writing down a carefully crafted list, but then get distracted and forget to return to it. Or they may look at their intensive list and become overwhelmed by how much work they still have.

It can be tempting to ignore the pressing tasks on your to-do list in favor of the more enjoyable or easier activities. This is where you may need additional help and support to make a workable to-do list that supports your working style and does not worsen your anxiety.

What Are the Common Issues That Cause To-Do Lists to Fail?

There is a misconception that a to-do list has failed if you have not been able to cross off every single item from it.

In actuality, that is often down to a lack of understanding of the to-do list’s role.

The humble to-do list is not really about creating a list of everything that needs to be done. Instead, it is about breaking down your workflow into manageable tasks.

The act of creating a to-do list is the act of accurately assessing everything a project entails.

This applies whether you have a daily or weekly to-do list or are even creating a collaborative list to help the rest of your team.

So, change your perception on how to tackle a to-do list.

Rather than seeing it as a static document full of tasks that must be completed, it should be seen as a flexible tool allowing you to assess priorities and ensure that deadlines are met.

A useful technique for making the most of your to-do list is to consider it as a tool that needs consistent maintenance and updates to help you track your progress.

With this in mind, here are a few common mistakes people regularly make with their to-do lists:

A Huge To-Do List

Creating one large to-do list is setting yourself up to fail.

Large to-do lists can cause you to feel overwhelmed because there is no differentiation between immediate short-term tasks and larger projects that require intensive work.

As such, you may start to feel that you are unable to tick anything off, leading to feelings of inadequacy or despondency.

An Unrealistic List

Adding to this, you need to think about whether you have organized your to-do list realistically.

How have you written your tasks down? You may find that to complete one specific task, you actually have to complete many smaller activities first.

For example, perhaps you are organizing the work Christmas party. You may have written this as one singular task on your list – but it is not.

Here is a breakdown of all the tasks this really involves, and thus all the tasks that should go on your to-do list:

Initial to-do list New to-do list
  Overall task Immediate priorities Additional tasks Other considerations
Organize Christmas Party Organize Christmas party Confirm final budget with an HR department Establish a cost per person Break this down into food/drink/decorations

Research venue options

Compare cancellation policies  
Look at food choices Confirm dietary requirements within guests
  Confirm min/max numbers for guest list Ensure these numbers fit in with your budget
Confirm venue booking Confirm the payment schedule Confirm details with the finance department
Guest lists Set up an initial guest list  
Liaise with the design team to create a corporate invitation Decide how/when to send out a corporate invitation
Set up a booking system Consider if automation can help keep track of responses

As you can see, the task of organizing the Christmas party is far more complex than it first appears.

Breaking it down into further sub-tasks and establishing your pressing priorities helps make it far more manageable.

It also allows you to track your progress as you work your way through the project, giving little bursts of satisfaction as you cross each item off.

As a single item, 'Organize the Christmas party' may take a couple of weeks to cross off your to-do list and drain your mental resources as you struggle to remember all the necessary aspects as you go.

Whereas the sub-tasks may initially look like more, but each one will take far less time and explicitly tell you what to do. It is a 'to-do list', after all.

Making sub-tasks can also help you to determine when and where you need to liaise with other departments and work collaboratively with your co-workers.

Ignoring Deadlines

One of the biggest problems people have when trying to manage their to-do list is writing down everything that they need to achieve but neglecting to focus on pressing deadlines.

Instead, they get swiftly drawn to the easier, more enjoyable tasks. It may be tempting to cross off three or four items on your list, thinking that you are being more productive.

But if you have missed a deadline because it involves a task you have been putting off, then your to-do list has not worked the way it should have.

What Should a Good To-Do List Look Like?

A to-do list is a hugely personal thing. Therefore, there is no definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write your to-do list.

However, those lists that are far more manageable and more organized often have many commonalities.

Try to include the following to improve your to-do list:

Note Any Pressing Deadlines/Immediate Priorities

This is the most important consideration for your to-do list. You must be clear on deadline dates and times so you get the important jobs completed first.

When writing your to-do list, it is valuable to include specific dates and contact details of people that you need to speak to.

Your to-do list should be a singular place where your working week is laid out. This means that you know what you need to be doing when you need to do it and why.

A Practical Guide to Making the Most of Your To-Do List
A Practical Guide to Making the Most of Your To-Do List


It is always beneficial to consider the 'SMART' acronym.

You need to add items to your to-do list that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

When writing your list, think about whether your task links into the above acronym:

  • Is it a specific task that needs to be done for an individual project?
  • How can you measure that activities’ success and when will you know if that activity has been completed?
  • Is it achievable to complete this week or does the overall task need to be broken down further into additional subcategories?
  • Considering the rest of your workload, is it realistic that you can finish it this week?
  • And is this specific task timely or are there any other projects that you should be focusing on right now instead?

Break Your List Down – Daily and Weekly Lists

As already mentioned, having a large to-do list is a definite no-no. Especially if each task is actually made of multiple sub-tasks.

You need to break it down into more manageable tasks.

You may even need to create multiple lists – perhaps an overall project to-do list, followed by a weekly tasks list, and then broken down further into a daily list.

This can also help solidify when your deadlines are.

Despite the initial outlay of energy, this is an efficient time-saver. It helps you to keep track of what you are doing and when, allowing you to see how you are progressing with certain tasks and hold an overall view of the situation.

Spend the Majority of Your Time on Your Immediate Priorities

Your to-do list can also be a 'what-not-to-do list'.

It is easy to head straight towards the non-essential job tasks. But, often, these smaller tasks should not take high priority.

Consider color-coding your list using a traffic light system – Use a red pen for essential tasks that must be done to a specific timescale, an orange pen for the tasks that need to be completed this week, and a green pen for the non-essential tasks that can wait till the end of the day or when you have spare time.

This approach can help you to see if you are spending more time on the ‘red’ tasks, or maybe procrastinating on the ‘green’ tasks, and help to keep you on track.

Also, as mentioned above, externalizing information frees mental resources to be put towards the actual tasks, and this traffic light system explicitly externalizes tasks’ priority and co-operates with already written deadline information.

Create a ‘Have Done’ List/Activity Report to Track Your Progress

If you are using technology to create your to-do list (perhaps a project management software, the to-do list feature within Microsoft Outlook, or even a spreadsheet), you may find it easier to move your completed tasks to a ‘have done’ or ‘completed’ list.

As you progress through the week, you will start to see your weekly to-do list reduce, and your ‘have done’ list grow in tandem.

This will give you a clear vision of your progress, and it also provides you with tangible evidence of what you have done should you need to give updates to your bosses or an external client.

Further, the tangible evidence of what you have done is proof to yourself that you have actually made progress, which is useful for fighting against low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness.

How to Write an Effective To-Do List – Five Tips

Now you know what a good to-do list should and should not include, here are some of the tactics you could use to write an effective and organized list.

1. Choose Your Writing Style

Some people may choose to handwrite their lists – and research shows that writing by hand encourages a deeper understanding and activates more areas of the brain.

Others prefer the ease and cloud-integration of apps or other digital tools.

Microsoft Office has a dedicated to-do list feature that can sync with your calendar, allowing you to prioritize any specific deadlines and prompting you when a deadline is upcoming.

If you only have an iPad or tablet, it may be a pain to use the on-screen keyboard to type long lists. Consider investing in a good keyboard case to turn your iPad/tablet into a true mini computer.

If you are looking to write your list by hand, you could choose to invest in a smart pen that will allow you to upload your notes straight to your desktop.

This could be the best of both worlds, offering the depth of memory through handwriting with the peace-of-mind through digital back-up.

Also, remember to stock up on highlighters and colored pens for instigating the traffic light system.

2. Add Some Incentives

If you struggle to keep yourself on track, try motivating yourself with incentives.

You could implement a ‘to-do jar’ where you add in a dollar for every task you complete, allowing you to save up for something special.

Or you could create an adult ‘sticker chart’ to track your progress – once you have achieved a certain number of stickers you can reward yourself with something nice, maybe a nice takeaway coffee from a local café.

Some people even monetize their to-do lists. A handy technique is to add financial value to each task – consider how much each task is worth to your job.

Start by considering how long it will take and how much you are paid by the hour.

The higher the financial value, the higher that task is placed within your priorities list. This can be effective at knowing which tasks make a significant impact on your bottom line.

3. Consider the 1-3-5 Rule

Set yourself achievable targets by following the 1-3-5 rule – each day, look to complete one large task, three medium-sized tasks and five small activities.

By aiming for this each day, you will quickly rattle through your list while ensuring that the key priorities are achieved.

This approach will also help juggle workloads and can be useful for other co-workers to know what you are working on.

For example, if you are suddenly asked to work on a last-minute request, you can show them your worklist and ask them to help you identify which tasks should be moved back.

4. Start With Your Least Favorite Tasks First

“If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”

– Mark Twain

As Mark Twain said, and Brian Tracy converted into a productivity rule: eat that frog.

In other words, while working with the 1-3-5 rule, choose to complete your least favorite tasks first.

This will not only help you tick them off quicker but, psychologically, you will feel better because the worst is behind you and the more enjoyable tasks are left for you to do as you head toward the end of the day.

5. Keep Your To-Do List Visible

Finally, make sure that, however you choose to write your list, it is visible to you at all times.

A well-written to-do list will only work if you remember to use it.

If it is physical, stick it up by your workstation. If it is digital, have a copy on your desktop so you see it each time you change windows.

Example To-Do Lists

With so much information, it may be quite difficult to understand how to organize your to-do list, and what an effective to-do list looks like.

Earlier on in this article, there was an example of an initial to-do list and how it could be improved.

Here will be another example – a poor to-do list transformed into a good to-do list after considering all these hints and practical tips.

A Poor Example of a To-Do List

‘To-do’ list
Write 2 x blog articles
Update social media channels
Create a marketing plan for a new recruitment project
Design external Christmas cards
Arrange staff appraisal dates
Respond to journalist inquiry
Add new product items to the website
Launch sale strategy
Meet with IT department to discuss website hosting

This looks like a fairly standard to-do list. But it is a bit jumbled.

There are no clear priorities or understanding of deadlines. Some projects clearly require working with other departments and, without a clear workflow, things can easily be missed.

Here is how it can be reworked into something more suitable:

A Good Example of a To-Do List

Key Project Immediate Priorities Weekly Tasks for Completion Daily Tasks for Completion Specific Deadline Dates Additional Department Involvement External Contacts
Media outreach Respond to journalist inquiry ref email sent 03.08.2021     Monday – 3 p.m.   John at the Daily Post
HR/Management Tasks Set up staff appraisals Collect self-assessment sheets from HR Share details with individuals   Speak to Jane in the HR team  
Set up individual meeting dates   Friday – 3.30 p.m.  
Recruitment planning Identify what skills are need in the team     Speak to Jane in the HR team  
Find out a budget for new staffing      
Research potential jobs boards to ensure diversity      
Marketing Plans Sales launch Ensure all products added to the website   Friday – 9 a.m. Confirm final prices with the sales team  
Prepare email marketing Collate subject lines/email content   Speak with the digital team  
Collate email lists    
Website UX Testing Ensure all sales products configured Test the priority sales categories for errors Wednesday – 11 a.m.   Contact Dave from web hosting
Website hosting Ensure website can cope with additional traffic   Wednesday – 5 p.m.  
Blog Writing Create content schedule Check next month’s content schedule aligns with business priorities   Friday – 11 a.m.   Speak with the external copywriting team
Social Media   Launch new sales plans on social media Schedule daily updates on each channel   Work with the design team for supporting graphics  
Ongoing Campaigns Christmas marketing Consider external Christmas card design     Talk to the design team about capabilities  
Identify Christmas card list        

As you can see, this list is far more organized. It breaks down the list into more manageable tasks, showcases any specific pressing deadlines and also indicates when the person needs to involve other departments.

For example, by making it clear that they need to speak to the HR team about two distinct campaigns, they can then schedule a time with that person to manage everything at once – improving time efficiency for others as well as themselves.

This list also shows the clear priorities for the week, and each day it can be updated to insert the next day’s tasks.

This is a far more collaborative to-do list technique, and it means that other co-workers can identify what this person is working on, and what they need to do to ensure all tasks are achieved on time.

Final Thoughts

Your to-do list is a very personal tool.

It is important to remember that whilst these practical tips are here to guide you; only you know what your working style is.

When writing and maintaining your organized to-do list, you need to find an approach that you think will work for you.

If multiple lists seem too complex, then chances are that style does not suit you. And if it is not aligned with you, then you will not use your list in the most effective way possible.

Use this article as a starting point. Try to understand how to view your to-do list as a flexible, continuously updated document, rather than something you need to complete in full.

An organized to-do list is about helping you to develop an effective workflow that brings together other team members as well as your personal tasks.

It is about helping you to identify your priorities as well as that of your business.

It is knowing how to make sure that you are working as effectively as you can.

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