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5 Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective

If your daily task list has become a compilation of things you never get done, use these tips to make it work for you.

Editor's Note: This article is part of "10 Ways To Be A Better Employee In 2015." Read the full list here.

To-do lists seem pretty straightforward: A list of all of the tasks you plan to accomplish during any given day or week. And, really, there are few things more satisfying than drawing lines through each entry. Progress!

But, many times, they balloon to unrealistic levels, and we end up feeling overwhelmed and ineffective. That’s usually because we’re using them as a catch-all for every task that’s thrown at us. Instead, our lists should be derived from our larger goals and include tasks that move us toward those big-picture endeavors, says Robert C. Pozen, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and Brookings Institution senior fellow. Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, says some simple tweaks can make your to-do list a better productivity tool.

1. Write it the night before.

When you take a few minutes to write your to-do list the night before, you can hit the ground running the next morning, Pozen advises. For many people, morning is a high-energy time and having your to-do list already in hand means you don’t waste any super-charged minutes figuring out what to do next.

2. Qualify the contents.

Everything that goes on your daily to-do list should fit two criteria: It should be something important that you need to do—versus that which doesn’t really need to be done or which can be delegated to someone else—and something that needs to be done on that day. Too often, we stuff our lists with items that we don’t need to do or which don’t need to be done today. That crowds out the more important items and might result in working longer hours unnecessarily. If you breeze through your important and urgent tasks for the day, you can move on to the next day’s tasks or other items that are not important or urgent, but which you want to do.

"When people don’t take control, they go through their days passively. They go to meetings, they answer email, and when they get to the end of the day, what they’ve done is responded to other people’s priorities and not their own," he says.

3. Assign time estimates.

Whether it’s five minutes or two hours, include an estimate of how long it will take to complete, recommends Omar Kilani, cofounder of popular to-do list app Remember The Milk. That way, you see how the tasks’ completion times accumulate and "you can make realistic decisions about how much you can really fit into your day," he says.

4. Use sections.

Pozen divides his list into two columns. On the left-hand side, he make a chronological list of the things that need to be done, such as meetings, conference calls, and appointments. On the right-hand side he lists what he hopes to get done during those events, like coming up with a plan or discussing a particular issue. Underneath his chronological list he include items that have to be done that day, but aren’t assigned to a particular time, in order of priority. That way, when he has a few minutes of down-time, he can check his list and see which tasks he can tackle to make the best use of that time.

5. Re-evaluate items you’ve put off.

Kilani’s app allows users to postpone tasks, but also keeps track of the days postponed. If you’re repeatedly bumping an important task to the next day, you need to look at why. Either it’s not that important or urgent and shouldn’t be on your list or there’s a problem you need to solve to allow you to complete it. Either way, it’s a signal that something is wrong.

[Image: Flickr user photosteve101]

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  • Shannon

    i have such a disorganized house. i feel that before i start a project,(basket of ironing, basket of socks to be matched, etc...) i feel that the house has to be near clean and organized. And then NOTHING gets done. I need to drum up business for us since we lost a huge account and have gone from weekly checks NO checks. I have this notion that if I have an office (spare bedroom) then I can get WORK stuff done. But for what ever reason I put off organizing the bedroom and turning it into an office. Which will only benefit me and my family. HELP HELP Desperate, unorganized and almost homeless and penniless in Chestertown, Md Thanks

  • Hey Gwen, thank you for the above tips. In Fact they also apply to and work very well for work at Home Business Owners and Solo small business owners! we should all endeavor to have a "Perfect day at work after all we spend most of our most productive hours "at Work".

  • I love your tip about taking a comprehensive to-do list and creating a daily task list that only includes items that need to be done that day. As we were working on a compilation of productivity proverbs recently, I came across an interesting fact: if you write down your goals, you're 33% more likely to achieve them ( Actually, this works for me perfectly, so I guess it's a very powerful productivity hack, even though it's pretty simple.

  • We have developed a unique drag and drop software that allows you to reprioritise task lists and colour code them against objectives and long term gaols. Please contact me if you are interested. It makes a big difference to your life!

  • Rodion Usaev

    Very good article article. Still a bit of space to evolve: why not to make a draft page in 5 minutes and show how you imagine a perfect to-do list? It all makes sense. But not all of it might be fitting together.

  • I was never a list person but I learned a technique that works for me. I have a steno pad, with a line down the center. The left side is the to-do list for the day (written the day before). I also go ahead a few days and add in appointments, etc to the right day. I also add the things I must do every day, such as hunt for news for one client, post something for another.

    The right side of the page is my to-do list for the future. this includes due dates but also ongoing projects or things I just want to remember. right now, that list has two websites that i'm working on intermittently for casual clients, a reminder to pay my nursing license before the end of March, and stuff like that.

    I started doing t his a few years ago and then stopped for a while a few times. Each time, I found myself nearly missing deadlines and scrambling.

  • you cannot improve what you don't measure. it's important to keep track of the tasks you finish for specific days. documenting the results and reviewing them at the end of the week will provide you with insight on your work flow, behavior, and effectiveness. keep tweaking and playing around with your workflow system until you can finally trust it. if you don't trust your current system, either finally decide to commit to it or oust it and make another one. build, measure, learn.

  • Would disagree with (1) in some ways, I really wouldn't want to sleep with the "Oh my god!" i have so much to do tomorrow sort of thoughts, shudders "

    That said, the remaining 4 might lead to lesser stress by trimming the list down.

  • Great article, Gwen. The key is to be in control of your day, not the other way around. Accept and plan to focus on the most urgent tasks based on timeliness.

  • Liz Becker

    Super helpful article! Thanks for the tips on how to organize your to-do list. Also I've heard that keeping your list to the size of what can fit on a post-it note is an easy way to not overdo your list.

  • Really great observation on needing to specify between general things that need to get done and things that need to get done today. Prioritizing these is an amazing anxiety relief when you start working through your list and feel like you're making the maximum progress that you can!

  • Really great observation on needing to specify between general things that need to get done and things that need to get done today. Prioritizing these is an amazing anxiety relief when you start working through your list and feel like you're making the maximum progress that you can!