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.