Work Smart: How to Write a To-Do List

Work Smart

A to-do list is a fundamental tool for getting things done: it helps you plan your day, see what you've accomplished, and what you should work on next. But a badly-written to-do list can actually sabotage your productivity instead of boost it.

The best part of using a to-do list is crossing items off of it as done, finished, complete. Some tasks are easier to tick off as done than others, so you want to make your to-do list as doable as possible. A common mistake is assigning ourselves impossible tasks that never get done because we didn't think them through. If you put in some thought up front, you can pare down your to-do list to the tasks you're most likely to check off the list.

First, know the difference between a project, goal, and a task. A project is a big undertaking that involves several tasks. A goal is something you want to achieve through both tasks and repetitive actions. "Clean out the garage," "Save $5,000," "Learn how to speak French"--these are projects and goals, and they don't belong on your to-do list. They'd just sit there and haunt you, because it wouldn't be clear where to start. Reserve your to-do list for the next steps that move a project along. Your goal to "Save $5,000" is going to start with a simple task, like setting up a monthly savings transfer.

Second, break down your to-do's into small, manageable bites. Don't put "Write 50 page report" on your to-do list. Try something smaller, like "Jot down 5 main ideas for the report." Use specific action verbs. Instead of writing "Ask Susan about her French class," opt for "Email Susan" or "Call Susan." That makes it easier for you to see what tasks you can do in certain situations. If you're at your computer, you can quickly send an email; if you're in the waiting room at the dentist, you can make a call on your cell phone. Give yourself enough information to get the task done wherever you are.

Finally, purge your list of the stuff that's not moving. Your to-do list should be a fluid document, changing every single day. Still, we all have items that have stuck around on our lists for weeks, months, or even years. Every once in a while, audit the oldest stuff on your list, and think about why you've put it off so long. Can you break it down into a smaller, less procrastination-worthy tasks? Is it something you need to do at all? Try to recognize your block around the task and clear it away.

The most popular tool for keeping track of your to-do list is plain old pen and paper, but some computer-based tools are fantastic, too. RememberTheMilk.com is a Web-based to-do list you can access from work, home, or from your smartphone. Things is an iPhone app that lets you work with your to-do's on the go. If most of your tasks come in through email, try Gmail or Outlook's built-in Task lists.

Whatever to-do list tool you do decide to use, remember to keep the tasks you put on it small, manageable, and specific to increase their chances of getting done.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: 3 Apps for Syncing Home and Office

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19 Comments

  • vijay joshi

    if we mentally prepare to-do-list should complete, then it is to step up forward to achieve Goal. 

  • Melyana Klue

    For effective project management I highly recommend the FranklinCovey system (franklinplanner.com) where a monthly master task plan guides the prioritized daily task list.

  • Louise Cloutier

    You didn't mention Nozbe, another great task management tool. I just signed up for it, and so far, I'm really enjoying it!

    www.nozbe.com

    --
    Louise Cloutier

  • Christine Maingard

    It's said that an effective and well managed to-do-list can increase one's productivity by about 20%. This is partly also because writing the tasks can clear the mind, increase focus and reduce stress. It can also be beneficial to add to the list unexpected and unplanned tasks that may require urgent and immediate attention, rather than quickly rushing off and doing them. The act of writing it down, can put things into a different perspective. Also, if we don't do this we may look back at the end of the day and wonder where half the day is gone, even though we know that we have been productively busy. This can be stressful because we haven't been able to tick off all the tasks we set out to do during the day.

    It's can also be useful to keep a different list for long-term tasks/projects.
    --
    Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More" http://www.thinklessbemore.com http://www.mindfulstrategies.c...

  • Mark Frisk

    Nice solid advice. Action verbs are definitely the way to go.

    I've just finished Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, the guy behind the Behance Network and the 99% conference, and I highly recommend it. Belsky makes a compelling case that coming up with a good idea is barely half the battle. The ability to properly manage all the "action steps," i.e. your to do items, is crucial to achieving success.

    http://the99percent.com/book

    I'm also taking Behance's Action Method Online for a test-drive. It's very well-designed and I'm liking it so far.

    http://actionmethod.com/

  • Alexandra Gibson

    Great post to make sure that we're keeping ourselves realistic with our lists.

    We recently created an A-D categorization for our company for to-do list priorities. I covered it in this post- http://leftbrainsforrightbrain.... It's a fairly new system for us but seems to be working great!

  • Sahil Parikh

    To-do lists are great at the start of the day. Helps you plan better and keeps you updated with what you have to do next. We use DeskAway (www.deskaway.com) to manage our projecs, milestones and tasks.

  • Seth Kravitz

    I have always approached it this way. I make a master list of everything I can possibly think of that I need to do. I then run down through them and categorize them as high, medium, low priority. I also remove anything that I think is not tangible, as in something that isn't really a todo, but more of a future goal. I then remove anything that I can't get done that week and it will go on next week's list. I then work my way through them high to low.

  • Jake Kennedy

    Thanks for this article. The "to do list" approach is a great idea for simplifying planning for organizations. As a government planner, I'm often left trying to explain to managers and directors how to plan. However, if they just relate to something they use on their own (like the "to do list"), this might make it easier for them to relate.

    Hope you don't mind, I've posted a link to this on my planning blog. Best wishes.

    http://planningcycle.blogspot....

  • Jake Kennedy

    Thanks for this article. The "to do list" approach is a great idea for simplifying planning for organizations. As a government planner, I'm often left trying to explain to managers and directors how to plan. However, if they just relate to something they use on their own (like the "to do list"), this might make it easier for them to relate.

    Hope you don't mind, I've posted a link to this on my planning blog. Best wishes.

    http://planningcycle.blogspot....

  • Jake Kennedy

    Thanks for this article. The "to do list" approach is a great idea for simplifying planning for organizations. As a government planner, I'm often left trying to explain to managers and directors how to plan. However, if they just relate to something they use on their own (like the "to do list"), this might make it easier for them to relate.

    Hope you don't mind, I've posted a link to this on my planning blog. Best wishes.

    http://planningcycle.blogspot....