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

By Ali Luke

July 5, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 
  • 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).

  • 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
Ali Luke

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