How to create a to-do list that helps you get tasks accomplished

Making an effective to-do list can be like drawing a picture — some days you produce a great work of art and other days you make something only suitable for the trash. Obviously, the goal is to produce 365 pieces of great art a year.

Last year, in the Unclutterer Forums, 14 members had a wonderful discussion about how they make realistic to-do lists. Here are some of their helpful suggestions:

toberead: I keep a couple of different To Do lists. One is for tasks that I must do today. Another one is for tasks that I have to do this week (or this month, etc.) That way, I’m reminded of things that I need to do sometime soon, but they don’t clutter up my daily To Do list.

Amber: … Set [a] timer for 10 minutes and in that time, write down (or type) all of the things you need to do that day … [Then,] go through your list and rank items according to importance, starting with the most vitally important. Things that absolutely MUST get done that day get a ranking of “1” so go through your list and rank those first … Now rank the least vitally important items – things that could be postponed for weeks if need be. Rank those as “5”s … Now rank everything else according to how they rate in importance between “1” (must be done today) and “5” (can wait several weeks if need be) … Once everything is ranked, you have your to-do list for the day. Start with the “1”s and work your way through to the “5”s.

CaySwann: I like to use for brainstorming lists, color-coding them, and setting tickler reminders for occasional repeating tasks. I use a gadget on my iGoogle page to show me my Todoist on my home page. It makes changing a deadline easy, and sorting and color-coding simple.

Lilliane P: I read years ago to put only the six most important items for the day on your daily list. This is manageable (esp. if large items have been broken down into manageable actions). Then, keep a running list of things to do that are waiting in the wings, so to speak.

Deb Lee: … pick the TOP ONE or TWO things that MUST to be done on THAT DAY.

Be realistic:

  1. How long will it take you to accomplish each task?
  2. Are there multiple steps to completing each task? How long will it take to do each step?

Priorities are typically driven by:

  1. Time (e.g., pick up the kids by noon)
  2. Money (e.g., deposit $$ to pay a bill <-- this one's time & money; get $$ that's owed to you)
  3. Sentiment (e.g., spend quality time with your favorite person)
  4. Combination of two or more of the above

Spend a few minutes figuring out if the task is driven by a particular constraint and that will help you to decide which one to tackle first.

Check out more to-do list ideas in the Forums, and join in the conversation there or in the comments to this post. I’m eager to read how everyone manages his list.

11 Comments for “How to create a to-do list that helps you get tasks accomplished”

  1. posted by Sandy Garfield on

    Hi Erin, Great post and a great reminder on a lot of things for me. Making your lists realistic is really the key I think. You always get more accomplished this way rather than trying to get through a list you know deep down you’re not going to finish. Like all organisation, it’s one step at a time.

  2. posted by Layla on

    I keep two lists as well – one on the “back” of the page in my notebook (the left side) which is where I write down everything. The other is on the “front” of the next page, where I sit down and look at what to do today.

    I especially like Deb Lee’s tips on priorities.

  3. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I think that having a list of things you must get done today (and it needs to be a SHORT list!) as well as a longer list of upcoming things.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. posted by Jessica on

    Sometimes if I’m feeling overwhelmed by my To-do list, I’ll make a “Done” list at the end of the day instead. I list out all of the things I accomplished that day. It might look something like this:
    – Washed/dried/folded/put away 2 loads of laundry
    – Made vet appointment for cat
    – Swept bathroom floor
    – Emptied dishwasher

    Even if I didn’t get to all the items on my to-do list that day, it makes me feel productive to look back and see what I accomplished.

  5. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    This might be “old school” but I use an old Palm Desktop program. I love it because I can print monthly as well as a daily schedule. I fold the daily schedule in half and tuck calendars for the next three months inside. I hand write notes and reminders on them as I go about my day. I don’t have to worry about batteries and no one has to wait for me to check a date, turn on a device or find information. I do use an iphone for mobile communications, but think there’s nothing like good ‘ol pen and paper for staying on top of the to do list!

  6. posted by Ella on

    I use the two-list method… one for the week from which I then extract the to-do’s for each day, usually 3-5 important items, plus 3-5 lower priority. Now, sometimes when total inertia sets in, I will write only ONE item on the day’s to-do list and put all my focus on just that one thing. But if I still can’t getting myself moving, I’ll break that one item into micro-steps and only write the first step on the day’s list. I swear, sometimes I have to treat myself like a recalcitrant child to kick myself into gear. But once I start rolling, I’m okay. No matter how many or how few items I actually get done in a day, I congratulate myself for doing them, even if it’s just one thing.

  7. posted by Joe Zack on

    I second

    I like it because I can sort and arrange it how I like it, and I can easily view just what I need to this day/week/month so I don’t feel overwhelmed seeing the whole list.

  8. posted by Jenni on

    I use a free e-todo list called “Remember the Milk”. For each task, there’s a section for the time requirement, priority, due date, location and notes. Tasks are broken up into different lists (Home, Research, Work, Kids) and searches can return tasks that fit certain requirements, such as being in a certain part of town. It’s really helped me get organized and balance all the stuff I need to get done.

  9. posted by Maya on

    I have two static to-do lists, one for week and one for weekend. Each one is 10 items, and always must include one or two fun/relaxing things. I call them my “will-be-done” lists because they are a list of the things that I will do each day: work, tidy, make/eat dinner, exercise, shower, pay bills, meditate, downtime with my husband, “something fun”, blog. It’s helpful for me because it is a daily reminder that there isn’t any time for “projects” during the week, only on weekends, without bumping something else. Within each item the list is in my head. On weekends I’ll supplement with a free-write list of everything that I could do if I had infinite time, then rank them as “needs to be done”, “should be done”, “I’d like it to get done”, “if I get to it”, and “yeah right keep dreaming”.

  10. posted by beth on

    Break it into the smallest steps so it doesn’t look so overwhelming. Cleaning the kitchen sounds like too much work. Wiping off the counters is easy. So easy that I can do a few more steps and a few more. I guess since I’m a cleanophobe it’s my version of One Day At a Time: just one step, you can do it. And then the next.

  11. posted by Alex on

    There’s a fantastic short-term planning app (for Android, I don’t know if it’s available for others) that has two lists: Today and Tomorrow. If you don’t mark something off from Today when the day is over, it stays there.

    So if, on Monday, I write “laundry” on Today and “do my taxes” on Tomorrow, if I haven’t marked out “laundry” by the end of the day, Today lists “laundry” AND “do my taxes” (in that order) and Tomorrow is blank.

    I still need a calendar to keep track of major things but this system is great for me, because eventually I get sick of seeing “laundry” and I finally just DO it!

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