How to Tame Your To-Do List

Image via Creative Commons, Tom Ray’s Flickr photostream. (Source)

Image via Creative Commons, Tom Ray’s Flickr photostream. (Source)

Do you use a to-do list? Most of us have some kind of running list of tasks which we want to get done (even if we keep this list in our heads).

And I expect that at some point, like me, you’ll have had the experience of creating an extremely ambitious to-do list … only to end up completing just a fraction of the tasks on it.

A to-do list in itself isn’t any kind of magic. You might feel good about writing it, but on its own, it won’t get the work done! And sometimes, your list can end up being a hassle, draining your energy or just getting in the way.

I can’t give you a magic system, because the way you work is no doubt different from the way I work – we all have slightly different approaches which suit us. But these steps should all help you to get your to-do list under control:

Step 1: Try Different Mediums
Do you keep your to-do list on the computer, or on paper? For a week, try doing the opposite – and see what difference it makes. I’ve gone through various to-do list mediums including:

    • Single sheets of lined paper (as a student – a whole week of tasks fitted on one sheet!)


  • A notebook with a page per day (when I started freelancing)



  • A computerized solution which uses templates to easily input recurring tasks (nowadays)


Your system will depend on how you like to plan and work, and on the types of tasks you have. My best suggestion here is to experiment – it’s very easy to get stuck in our ways and to assume that the system we have is effective just because it vaguely works.

Step 2: Don’t Over-Plan
The biggest mistake that most of us make with to-do lists is to get too ambitious. We write down all sorts of things which we want to get done – only to end up feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and annoyed at ourselves when we don’t achieve it all.

Many experts advise limiting your to-do list as much as possible: some suggest writing down just three-five tasks each day. When you put an item onto your list, ask yourself: Do I want to do this?

If not, can you delegate it? And does it really need to be done?

Don’t fill up your to-do list with “nice to do” items … if you want to track these, try keeping them on a separate page or in a different file, so that you can turn to them when you’ve completed the day’s work. That way, they’ll feel like bonus achievements rather than yet another thing to slog through!

Step 3: Make New Tasks Wait

Another common mistake is to plan out a perfect day or week, only to end up shoving new tasks in as they arise. Perhaps you’ve got your three key tasks for the day all planned, but then you check your email and a client is asking for some revisions on a project.

Unless a new task really needs to be done the same day, write it on tomorrow’s list. (Or on a different day later in the week.) I find that creating this buffer lets me focus on what’s important first, rather than just on what happens to catch my attention. Often, an emergent task can wait 24 hours without any problems at all.

Step 4: One Task At a Time

Finally, when you’re actually working from your to-do list, be clear about what item you’re tackling at any given moment. Flitting around trying to do five things at once won’t do you any favors: you’re more likely to forget things, make mistakes, or get distracted.

I like to annotate my list as I’m going along with “1″ against the task I’m going to tackle next, “2″ against the one after that, and “3″ against the third. This helps me to stay focused – if I’m tempted to switch to something else, I remind myself that I’ve chosen to work in a particular order so that I can get all the important things done while I’ve still got plenty of energy.

What does your to-do list look like? Is it working for you?

Written on 3/11/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali is a professional writer and blogger, and a part-time postgraduate student of creative writing. If you need a hand with any sort of written project, drop her a line ( or check out her website at Aliventures. Photo Credit: J Dueck

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