How to Organize Your To Do List

Being busy doesn’t always mean we’re getting important things done.  Activity can feel productive, but sometimes it’s the farthest thing from it.  To help keep us on track, most of us naturally turn to making lists in one form or another.  But did you know that not all to-do lists are created equal?  How you make the list can mean the difference between meeting your goals and falling ever behind.

Most of us weren’t taught that not all to-do lists are created equal.  A list is a list, right?  Simply write everything down and check it off as you go, right?  Well, it turns out that taking this approach can actually cause us to get less done and feel more stress.  A good to-do list can actually cooperate with how our brain works, make us more productive, and reduce stress.  

Well Crafted To Do List

Poorly Crafted To Do List

Create a successful to do list

What do I mean by successful?  Well, first this means that it really increases your ability to move toward your goals, and to make regular, significant progress. Secondly, it means that your quality of life will be improved in some way, such as less stress, fewer apologies due to forgetfulness, or more mental energy to spend on other things.

Pick a format

One of the most common reasons for to-do lists being ineffective is that people make them and then forget about them.   So knowing yourself is key here.

What platform will be the best for you to use consistently?

  • Paper planner
  • Bullet journal
  • Smart phone app
  • Online service
  • Spreadsheet

Once you find what works, stick with it so using it becomes second nature.

Create one big list of tasks

Do you have a LOT of tasks on your mental to-do list right now?  Or maybe numerous random lists around the house or office that you’ve made and not completed?  I know I have a habit of doing this.  I can go a little crazy with the Post-It notes sometimes!

Well, the place to start in creating a to-do list that really works is to gather all those tasks together. 

  • Get every task in your mind on to paper.
  • Collect all the random lists and notes you have already.

It will be a relief just to do this step alone.  Trust me!  But we won’t stop here. 

Divide the big list into separate lists

Trying to use one big list on a daily basis is very counterproductive.  It doesn’t work, and you would probably end up abandoning the idea quickly. 

So now we’ll make a handful of categorized lists that will hold all the tasks you wrote down.  They’ll be grouped in ways that are most effective for your goals and lifestyle.

Here are some suggestions for how you may want to organize your big list of tasks:

  • Long Term/Short Term Lists —
    Keep your longer-term tasks on a Master List.  Some tasks can be there for quite a while.  Then create shorter-term lists (maybe weekly and daily) for items that need to be taken care of more immediately.
  • Category Lists — 
    Keeping separate lists for different types of tasks can be really helpful.  For example, a grocery list, errands list, cleaning list, etc. 
  • Home/Work Lists —
    Keeping these two areas of life separate is not always easy, but using designated lists can make a difference.

Note that these are lists of tasks, but your ‘to-do’ list is something a little different.  It will have some very specific characteristics that I talk about next.

Create your to-do-list

Now we’re actually building our to-do list!  This is where a few simple changes can make all the difference.  Implement the suggestions below to increase the power of a list to help you get things done. 

How to turn an ordinary to-do list into an effective productivity tool:

Prioritize your to-do-list

Another key is to order your list from highest priority to lowest and attack the tasks in that order.  If you don’t do this, you’ll need to think through the list again each time you complete an item.  And you’ll be tempted to do all the easy items first. Instead, you want to think through this ahead of time, so when you’re using the list you don’t have to think about it at all. 

Start your list with a task or two that has to get done, and do those first.  Instead of choosing the quick items first, go for the ones that are more important and maybe more difficult.

When prioritizing, consider the following: 

  • How important the task is
  • How urgent the task is
  • How long it will take to complete

Weigh all these things when determining the priority of a task.

Turn your 'to do' list into a 'done' list

At the end of the day, we often think only about all the things we still need to do.  Of course, this list never ends, so we feel as though we’re not being productive.

But it’s good to look back over your list and remind yourself of all the things you did that day.  This will reduce frustration and give you a more balanced view of what you’ve actually accomplished.

Avoid these common pitfalls

We’ve all done them, but they sabotage our results.  So I’m here to remind you of these common mistakes to avoid.

  • Use your email as a to do list.
  • Keep adding to your current to do list.  Finish it then create a new list.
  • Keep everything in one big list and try to use that as your to do list.
  • Leave off obvious tasks.  Write down those things that are obvious, like picking the kids up from practice, exercising, or walking the dog.
  • Make your list when you’re distracted or in a hurry.  Giving it time and focus will pay off.
  • Keep your list somewhere you can avoid seeing it.

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