How To Write An Effective To Do List: Top 10 Actionable Tips


If you’ve ever wondered how to write an effective to do list, this article is for you. The age-old to-do list. It’s one of the most useful productivity tools you have at your disposal and simultaneously one of the most misunderstood and misused.

Believe it or not, there’s an art to creating a to-do list that complements your pursuit of greater productivity. Most people take the wrong approach with their lists and then wonder why they can’t seem to get their mountain of todo items under control. If you’re dealing with that issue, you’re in good company.

The problem is, it’s difficult to be productive over long periods if you don’t know how to create effective task management lists. I’ll show you how to do that in this section so you can inject a real sense of order into your daily life. But first, it’s worth spending a few minutes to understand why most to-do lists fail.

How To Write An Effective To Do List:

There are 3 main reasons: First, most lists contain too many items. Advocates of Getting Things Done will argue that putting every task, no matter how small, on a list is valuable because doing so removes those tasks from your mindspace. That, in turn, allows you to focus on the work at hand. There is something to that assertion. Allowing hundreds of tasks to linger on your mind will erode your concentration. It will also increase the likelihood that some tasks will fall through the cracks.

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But the answer is not to put every task on a list. As busy as our lives are, that only guarantees you’ll be left with a gargantuan (and discouraging) list of hundreds of uncompleted items by the end of the week.

The answer is to focus your efforts on the tasks that matter. Pareto Principle can be applied to your daily workflow; most of the items on your to-do list can be ignored or postponed. Here, I’m suggesting that you proactively decide which tasks deserve a spot on your list in the first place. The second problem with most task management lists is that they lack deadlines.

Look at your to-do list. Have you assigned a deadline for each item? I’ll go out on a limb and assume the answer is probably no. That’s a problem. Deadlines drive action. Without them, we’re more inclined to postpone the completion of tasks. It’s human nature.

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But let’s say you’re a member of that small class of folks who actually assigns a deadline for every task on their task management lists. Here, the question is whether the deadlines you’ve assigned are too far into the future. Parkinson’s law teaches us that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The longer you give yourself to complete a given task, the longer it will take to complete it. Set an aggressive deadline for it.

The third problem with most to-do lists is that there’s no system for prioritizing tasks. We know intuitively that some tasks are more important than others. We also know that we need a way to distinguish the important tasks from the unimportant ones. But how many people actually implement a prioritization system and regularly use it? Very few. Most of us simply write items down as they pop into our heads and neglect to assign a priority to them. Assigning priorities requires putting each item into the context of our current workflow and short and long-term goals. That takes time and effort, neither of which we’re willing to invest at any given moment.

The problem is that, without assigning priorities that guide our workflow, it’s difficult to know which tasks pose the most value to us. That leaves us to pick tasks haphazardly, according to our mood, interests or other variables that don’t support our pursuit of higher productivity.

Now that you’re familiar with the 3 main reasons most task management lists fail, let’s talk about how to create one that works for you. I’ll present a series of 10 actionable tips below:

  1. Maintain 2 lists: one for the current day and one master list.
  2. Keep your lists short. Especially your daily list. If an item doesn’t need to be done that day, don’t put it on your list.
  3. Choose 3 items on your daily list that are the most important tasks of the day. These are your “A priority” items. They must get completed.
  4. Give each remaining task a priority. Use B and C. “B priority” items are important, but the world won’t end if you fail to complete them. “C priority” items can be put on the backburner without consequences.
  5. Assign date-based deadlines – for example, May 21 – for each item on your master list. Assign time limits – for example, 45 minutes – for each item on your daily list.
  6. Make each task actionable. Rather than writing down “contractor invoices,” write down “pay contractors’ invoices.”
  7. Add details you’ll need in order to complete a task. For example, if you need to call a restaurant to make a reservation, add the restaurant’s phone number to your list. That will save you the time and hassle of looking it up later.
  8. Do a weekly purge of your master list. On Sunday (or whatever day you choose), glance through your list and cross off items that are no longer relevant to your goals.
  9. Break large tasks into smaller ones. This might clutter your to-do list since you’ll essentially be adding a lot more items to it, but you’ll be better able to complete tasks when they’re individually defined.
  10. Make sure each item on your master list is short-term in nature. You might want to learn how to play piano, but unless you plan to take action on that goal in the next few weeks, leave it off your list.

If you want to be productive, you must create effective task management lists. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time on things that keep you busy, but prevent you from actually accomplishing your goals. (b)