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How To Make Your To-Do List Work For You

Written on 9/4/2008 by Ali Hale. Ali runs Alpha Student, a blog packed with academic, financial and practical tips to help students get the most out of their time at university. Photo Credit: Jayel Aheram


Whether you’re a student, employee, or freelancer, chances are that you’ve come across lots of advice recommending that you use a to-do list. At its simplest, a to-do list is just a series of tasks that you want to get done today – but there are dozens of variations on this theme.

However elaborate your to-do list, it’s utterly useless to you if you ignore it. Anyone – however lazy – can scribble down an ambitious plan for the day, but if yours rarely bares any relation to reality, read on to find out how to make a to-do list work for you.

  1. What should go on your to-do list?
    The first question to ask yourself is whether you’re including too much on your to-do list. If a task doesn’t need to be done, and you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t warrant a place on your list. (Feeling that you should do it often isn’t a good enough reason.)

Make sure the tasks you enter are single ones, ideally taking no more than an hour each. That means that instead of putting “Create website for client” on the list, you break it down into smaller chunks:

… etc. If you want to learn more about how to “chunk” down a huge or seemingly impossible task, read Tim Brownson’s excellent (and funny) article Chunky Monkey Builds a Plane.

But don’t try to go into too much detail. If a task takes less than 15-20 minutes, it shouldn’t be on your list.m Eg. “Reply to email from Tom”, “Reply to email from Sue”, “Reply to email from Dave” don’t need to be separate tasks. But nor should you stop everything you’re doing each time an email comes in, in order to reply – you’ll waste a lot of time that way. Just put “Reply to outstanding emails” and do them all together as a batch. (Darren Rowse has a great post on Problogger about how he uses batching to work more effectively.)



If you spend a lot of time away from your computer (i.e. if you’re a student researching essays in the library), then try using a paper list – this served me well at university! Paper lists also work if you have a small number of tasks to do. For instance, if you work full-time but do a little freelancing in the evenings and weekends. I now use an electronic to-do list, but several friends have recommended the ebook Todoodlist if you do want to use a paper system.

For those who use a to-do list for their whole working day, an electronic version can help to keep things tidy – particularly when tasks need to be altered or postponed. I like the simple interface of Remember the Milk, which allows you to send in tasks by email and delegate tasks to other people. (It’s also free to use.) If you don’t have an always-on internet connection, though, you might prefer to use an offline solution – FruitfulTime’s Task Manager is worth a look.



Some life coaches, such as Mark Forster, advise against prioritizing items: either a task needs to be done or it doesn’t, and you should be able to complete everything on your list in an average working day.



An “open” to-do list typically means starting out with a few tasks that need to be done, then jotting down more and more as emails and phone calls come in … and trying to get them done the same day.

The problem with using a “open” list is that it’s very easy for it to get too long. It’s also often an inefficient way to work. When you think of tasks that need to be done during the day:

This process ensures that you don’t end up getting distracted and doing jobs just for the sake of it. Of course, it’s easier to tell yourself, “I’ll get to that tomorrow” than to say it to a boss – so you may need to be a bit flexible if you’re in full-time employment. Even so, plenty of office work (i.e. emails from another department asking you for information) can wait until the next day.

I hope that’s given you some pointers – and perhaps some insights into why your to-do lists haven’t worked for you in the past. What’s your experience of to-do lists? Do you find them a useful way to keep track of everything and stay productive, or do they just cause you to feel stressed?


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