How to Write a Great To-Do List (And Why You Need To)


Do you have so much to do that you just don’t know where to begin?

We all feel like that sometimes – maybe most of the time. When there’s a whole bunch of different commitments and responsibilities pressing on is, it’s easy to freeze up and do nothing at all.

That’s why you need a to-do list and more importantly perhaps, you have to execute on it. Listing things simply to clear your mind isn’t good enough.

It is however a start so let’s begin there.

It helps you:

  • Beat overwhelm – it’s easier to get a grip when you can see what you really need to do, in black and white
  • Remember everything – you can get all those little things off your mind and onto paper, so that you don’t forget anything crucial
  • Stay on track – so that you don’t end up wasting time doing the wrong things

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had plenty of experience with to-do lists during your life. Maybe you’ve written out a list every January of things you really want to accomplish that year – only to find that you’ve accomplished precisely none of them by December. Or perhaps every Monday morning, you write a list for the week – only to find it falling apart by lunchtime.

So, here’s how to create a to-do list that will actually work for you.

  1. Write Down Everything That’s On Your Mind
    You’ve probably got a whole bunch of stuff in your head right now: tasks to do, projects to complete, things you need to buy, phone calls to make, and so on.

    Grab a piece of paper or fire up an app, and write it all down. This might take 10-15 minutes and you may end up with a horribly long list. Don’t worry – we’re not going to tackle it all!

  2. Find the Important Tasks
    Look through your list and highlight anything that’s important. That might be mission-critical tasks at work, promises that you’ve made at home, or anything that’s going to cause you a lot of inconvenience if it doesn’t get done (like paying your bills).

    It’s up to you to decide what counts as “important” – it’s not just about work tasks. If you’d really love to start a blog, take a pottery class or go skydiving, those can go on your important list too.

  3. Find the Urgent Tasks
    Go through your list again, ideally with a different colored highlighter. This time, pick out anything that’s urgent. These might not be especially important tasks – but they need to be completed within the next few days.

    Urgent tasks might be taking back your library books, making a phone call, sending out an email, or similar. Again, it’s up to you to decide what counts as urgent – you might want to focus on tasks for the next day or for the next week.

  4. Pick Two Important Tasks
    Now, look at your important tasks. Choose:
    • One small task to do today (like “finish that report and send it to the boss”)
    • One medium-sized task to do some time this week (like “write the first chapter of my novel”)

    Depending on your schedule and the size of the tasks, you might want to pick two or three tasks in each category. Make sure that you phrase your to-do list items as actual tasks. “Report” is not a task; “Write the conclusion to the report” is.


  5. Add in Urgent Tasks
    Hopefully, you won’t have too many urgent tasks … but even if you feel overwhelmed by them, it’s still a good idea to get your important tasks in place first. (That way, you avoid building up a backlog of tasks that keeps you chasing urgent things rather than important ones.)

    If you can, ditch any urgent-but-unimportant tasks, or get someone else to give you a hand to get through them.

    Again, make sure that you break the items down into specific actions (especially if you’re going to be delegating).

  6. Make a To-Do List Every Morning
    Now that you’ve got a big list of tasks, it’s easy to look through each morning and decide what needs to be done. Every day, pick one – three important tasks, and make these a real priority. Jot down any urgent tasks too, so that you don’t forget them.

    Your to-do list is a powerful tool to help you avoid procrastination: if you have a clearly-defined list of tasks, it’s easy to work through them.

Do you write out regular to-do lists? What has – or hasn’t – worked for you?

Written on 7/5/2011 by Ali Luke. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: Florian

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