6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.

    6 Comments for “6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list”

    1. posted by immaterialgirlUK on

      I like the idea of actually allocating dates and times in your diary and then treating the to dos as you would any appointment . I thought I’d try this in my new job as well as at home but 6 months later it’s too easy with a digital diary to just keep moving things on and not actually doing them especially with a psychopathic boss who is very badly disorganised and always has been but likes things exactly his way, thanks very much, so I and the other employees have to do things his way or highway! It’s his company so no way to go over his head but hard to cope when you have no choice but to do what you’re told!

    2. posted by guidingfox on

      It could have been me writing the comment above! I too have a dysfunctional and totally disorganised boss, who changes his mind on a whim, had no business acumen (a very good engineer but sadly not translated to business) and who owns the company. My strategy for keeping on top of his erratic behaviour is to be as organised as possible and I use Outlook Tasks, with categorised to do lists, scheduled dates and lots of reminders which all change regularly but at least me keep on track and maintain my sanity. Good to know I’m not alone!

    3. posted by Ms Hanson on

      Although I did not attribute it to Steven Covey, I used his method for setting priorities for years. A lunchtime series of workshops included one that highlighted this technique, and I discovered that things moved around on it.

      Urgent AND Important things were evident – heart attacks, fires, emergencies – while the NOT Important NOR Urgent things – learn a new skill, train for a marathon, travel – might shift dramatically.

      One Friday I wound up in the emergency room with a life-threatening diagnosis, advised to schedule with a specialist ASAP. All weekend long, those NOT Important NOR Urgent things haunted me. And they moved unchecked right into the Urgent AND Important corner.

      As it turned out, the diagnosis was completely wrong, and there was no recurrence.

      Recognizing that urgency and importance assigned any task, project or dream may change helped me to learn when to stop throwing time, money and effort at people, places and things that did nothing to nurture my forward progress.

      Today I still find Covey’s matrix useful.

    4. posted by Pat Reble on

      My approach to lists has had to change with changes in living spaces and work places. I used to keep a calendar beside the phone, but the phone in the new house was in an inconvenient location for this. I switched to using my cell phone – then ended up in a job where cell phones are prohibited, so I switched to an old fashioned diary. Actually, it’s the Hobonichi Techo, and I love it! Whatever your approach to lists, sometimes we have to change the way we do them. I suspect it’s also true for making effective lists – needs don’t stay static – they need reassessment if they don’t seem to be working any more.

    5. posted by Maya on

      One problem I always had with to-do lists was that psychologically it was hard to let go of the idea that on some days I couldn’t get to anything on the to-do list. They I heard about a different kind of to-do list that lists what you will *actually* do. So my standard weekday to-do list is now: baby care, go to work, cook/eat dinner, pay bills, quick tidy house, something fun/recharging, take a shower, exercise, meditate, attend organization meetings when scheduled. 10 things, and that’s the limit. I have a separate list for weekends. It really helped me to recognize that just because I wasn’t getting stuff done on my dream/project list, didn’t mean that I wasn’t actually being productive.

    6. posted by Reece on

      I love the idea of breaking jobs down into their component parts, as I think that this is where I get stuck a lot of the time, I just didn’t realise that this is why. Note to self: break the task down!
      Thanks for the ideas.

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