Do your to-do lists need a makeover?

After reading Patrick Rhone’s advice to get items I will never complete off my to-do lists, I decided to do a thorough evaluation of all my lists. Not only were my to-do lists filled with things that I’m certain I won’t do, I was surprised by how many things I will do and want to do that have never made it onto my lists.

The reason to keep lists is to get tasks out of your head and onto paper. Simply writing down (or typing into a computer application) all the things you have to do, you can better manage your schedule, your stress level, and all of your tasks. You can make a giant to-do list with work and personal items all on one list. You can make multiple lists based on where you complete the work (at your computer, in the car, etc.). You can make lists based on a timeline (today, this month, this year). You can make lists in whatever way you choose, as long as the method you pick is something you’ll consistently use.

After evaluating my lists, I realized it was time to makeover my method for compiling information. I’m clearly not capturing information as best as I can to meet my needs. For my list overhaul, I took the following steps to get things in order:

  1. Walk through. Grab a pad of paper and a pen and visit every corner of space in your life. At work, open each drawer, scan every shelf, and inspect every surface for reminders of things you need to do. At home, walk through every room, open every closet, and inspect every area for reminders there. Get in your car. Walk around the outside of your house. Read emails, memos, and notes from friends to put together your list.
  2. Be realistic. Review your list and instantly cross off anything you know you will never complete.
  3. Compare. Pull out your previous to-do list and compare it to the new one you just made. Did you forget anything that needs to be added to the new list?
  4. Create. Based on whatever method you are most likely to use, separate your master list into smaller lists. As you work, be sure to prioritize tasks you must get done immediately. You may prioritize items with highlighters or a letter ranking (A, B, C) or a giant asterisk next to your most important action. Also, be sure to use specific and active language when putting items on your list. “The car” is not specific nor active, but “Throw away trash in car” is specific and active.
  5. Schedule. All to-do items with a deadline should be immediately scheduled on your calendar. Be sure to schedule time to work on the item on your schedule and not only the deadline.
  6. Work. Take care of the things on your schedule for the day.
  7. Review. At the end of each day, review your lists and cross off all the items you completed, make sure you have added all new items to your list, and schedule tasks from the to-do list onto your calendar. Each morning, review your plan for the day and make necessary adjustments. Also, evaluate your to-do list methods every three or four months to determine if your lists and working as best as they can for you. (This review step is clearly where my previous method broke down.)

Do your to-do lists need an overhaul? Is it time you started a list (or two or three) of the things you need to do? Reduce your stress levels and get your lists made and in order.

20 Comments for “Do your to-do lists need a makeover?”

  1. posted by Alison C on

    I love to do lists!
    I like to use one for work and even though we have a database that can manage our tasks there is nothing as satisfying as crossing an item off a list.

    I usually try to make a list for the next day as I an finishing up but do add to it as I go through the day.

    When I get very stressed I always stop nad ensure I have a list of tasks to keep me on track rather than geting overwhelmed. I have also been known to cheat slightly when particularly stressed by adding an item that is finished or almost finished so I can get the satsifaction of crossing it off.

  2. posted by Steve on

    I have many items on my todo list that have been languishing there for quite a while. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any that I feel I can give up on. What I really need to do is start working on them. If I knock out one a week my list would be clear by the end of the summer.

    I bet there’s some books on my “toread” list that I will never read, but that is a list I never expect to finish with anyways, so it doesn’t bother me as much.

  3. posted by ninakk on

    Great article! Getting Things Done has made me realize: a) there’s a vital difference between Projects and Someday/Maybe and b) there’s an even greater, vital difference between Project and Next action.

    I’ve adapted GTD into something that suits me better (mostly in the Archive/Reference area), but the fact that I was misusing Someday/Maybe (before I knew they were indeed this) with stuff spilling over into Projects made me miserable, no matter how much I like my lists.

    GTD isn’t a direct way to pure bliss (compare with Erin’s #6…), but it has made it a lot clearer for me what I want the most in life and what I want to focus on, give my time and energy. A critical #7 is very useful too.

  4. posted by Alix on

    @ Allison C
    Adding an item to a list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off? There’s not a list-maker alive who doesn’t do that! πŸ™‚

    My problem is that some of my to-do items are more like personal rebukes — things I feel I *should* so, not things I *want* to do.

  5. posted by lafou on

    When I realize a “to-do” has become a lower priority, I move it in my calendar to a date far in the future. There are tons of to-do tasks to shape up my house for sale in a couple of years. The only way I can keep my head from exploding is to push back less pressing items. Many times items on the list come from sage advice from somebody; by putting it off, it gives me time to accumulate more info and either do it or cross it off later on.

  6. posted by Troy Heinzman on

    Erin, this is always helpful advice. It’s one thing to have a to-do list (that’s only half the battle), the other side is actually getting things done.

    I have a few items on my to-do list that just keep getting their due date pushed out. Maybe it’s time they either get done today or leave the list forever.

  7. posted by Mletta on

    The key, with any list, is prioritization. Doesn’t matter how many items I have, it’s about priorities, which do change, and then the list changes. And yes, there are indeed professional and personal conflicts and then I remind myself that without the income-generating activities, there is no time/$$ for the other stuff.

    All “to-dos” are not of equal importance but we often overlook that when choosing which items to do. Some folks often do a simple, easy item so they can just check stuff off the list. Meanwhile, critical items remain undone.

    I’ve created my own version of the four-block Covey diagram (Important, Not Important, Urgent, Non-Urgent), which has helped me tremendously. I also use colors to flag me so that my can literally go to the red (Urgent, Important) before other items.

    Aside from the activity we choose, there is the issue of how much time/energy/resources we throw at it. I’m constantly reminding myself, it’s not necessarily about doing something “right” but about doing the “right things.”

    As someone who works from home with lots of daily deadlines, I know how easy it is to all of a sudden find energy for all sorts of little stuff that needs to be done in the home office or elsewhere. And then I’m too tired, run out of time, etc. for the big stuff.

    My biggest thing in terms of getting stuff done on a list is to make a mental sublist of what needs to be done before a project is officially “started.” Half the time, once I do that list (which is less onerous in my head than on paper), I start the project I’m putting off and get a lot done.

    You do have to be realistic about lists, but often the sheer act of making one has you rethinking whether or not to include items and what priority to give them.

    A constant challenge, and learning experience.

  8. posted by Peric on

    In order to accomplish the VERY important mission of a list of being a place to put the things that otherwise would come up to our mind once and again, I suggest to dump anything unimportant in a “Maybe/someday” list. Agree with Ninakk.

  9. posted by kylie on

    i am great at making the list but not so hot at prioritising the items on it. So at 36 i still use the same technique i used as a 7-year-old list-maker….

    1. write the list (in any order)
    2. Going down the items of the list, do “eenie, meenie, mynie, mo, catch a tiger by the toe…..” to see which list item goes first – and put a 1 (or the next number) next to it
    3. repeat step 2 until all items are numbered and then get to work.

    This worked great as a child when all my tasks were not connected to each other. As an adult (when many tasks are interrelated) i then go to step 4:

    4. Cheat a bit and rearrange some of the numbers so the order makes more sense (ie. you don’t put the washing away before you’ve washed it) (yes washing, and putting away are separate items …. similar to AlisonC, the more you can cross off the better it makes you feel πŸ™‚

    It may sound stupid… but i find it *enormously* helpful…you might too πŸ™‚


  10. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    At my last job I kept a running done / to-do list that just kept growing. I kept the ‘done’ items on the list so if I had a similar job like it I could refer to my response to the previous one as a base for the new one. In this case, my job was investigating complaints and writing responses to them; many complaints were the same even if the location was different so similar responses were required.

  11. posted by DebraC on

    To do lists can work well. My preference is to list all tasks into an application like Outlook and/or one that can be accessed online via any location.

    Making to do lists on paper has a nice traditional feel to it. However, the downside is that over time lists can get lost, and it is hard to consolidate different lists made over time.

    Categorizing to do lists is a good method to stay more organized. It helps with prioritization of important tasks and helps to keep your to do lists under control.

  12. posted by alison p-h on

    I love making lists. However, I found that my lists could make me feel guilty or unproductive (even though I too add items that I know will be crossed off quickly :)). This feeling came from re-writing the weekly (& growing) to-do’s into the next week on the calendar.

    About 8 months ago, on an unclutterer post, Erin referenced Mark Forster’s system. This one fits me the best and I love it! While I have customized it a little, the biggest mindset change was re-evaluating the to-do and acknowledging that it won’t get done and then crossing it off. My stress levels, which were only brought on by me, have significantly decreased.

    Now just trying to find the best system for work!


    PS. Kylie- this past weekend, I did try something different. I had a spare 2 hours and I did the eenie, meenie, miney, moe system. A lot of fun.

  13. posted by amydostafford on

    Love, love, love theis post, although I am biased and am a list person. Everyone knows how important my treasured list book is. It’s prioritized and color-coordinated, but is becoming a bit overwhelming so this post comes at a perfect time to do some cleaning and not forget to add some fun to the list.

  14. posted by Ashley S.C.Walls on

    I am glad that I read this post because it reminded me that there is a difference between a to-do list and an idea list. Just because we think of an idea may not mean it is to be done or needs to be entered on our to-do list. I have a bad habit of doing this.

    Thank you for the reminder

  15. posted by Jenna on

    To answer your question, yes, they need a makeover!

    Great point about being realistic and reviewing your list periodically to ensure that there’s not excess cluttering up your list.

    I recently started using RememberTheMilk for my home to-dos, which I can access from any computer (since it’s web-based) and also on my smartphone. My downfall is that I’m still transitioning and don’t always remember to use it consistently (sometimes I revert to my old way of emailing myself reminders). I’m working on it, though! At work I am trying to transition to using Outlook for tasks (eliminating post-it notes, etc.). Old habits die hard! Thanks for this post – it’s a good reminder to re-focus on consolidating to-dos.

  16. posted by Melanie on

    @ Jenna;
    I recently found a FANTASTIC site that keeps track of the whole family’s calendars, shopping and TO-DO Lists – all real time and can be accessed from all my devices (ipod touch, Droid Phone, Blackberry, iPad, Laptop)… It is truly saving my sanity!!

  17. posted by kylie on

    @alison p-h πŸ™‚ Glad you liked it πŸ™‚

  18. posted by Ryo on

    Thanks for the refresher! I use a quadrant system the first quadrant stuff I need to get done before 11am, q2 stuff that I need to get done before I leave work, q3 stuff before I go to bed and q4 stuff I need to do by the end of the week.

  19. posted by Kevin on

    You gotta check out WorkFlowy!

    Perfect for lists

  20. posted by Melissa on

    I just found your list post… thank you! In my former career I would do this at the end of every week, compiling all of the to-do lists I had made to take stock of where I was. I went back to school and am settling into a new career and for some CRAZY reason forgot about my great list-renovation techniques! I hope folks find the idea helpful-I can attest that it works wonders to unclutter your mind as much as your desk.

Comments are closed.