The New Habit Challenge: Create A Better To-Do List

Making a simple list isn’t the best way to get things done. Next week we’ll test more effective approaches to organizing our days.

The New Habit Challenge: Create A Better To-Do List
[Stack white paper and Sharpened pencil via Shutterstock]

Tons of successful leaders laud the to-do list as the key to more organized, productive, and focused days, but is there a right way and a wrong way to do your to-do?


The short answer: Yes.

Just making an exhaustive list of all the things you need to do isn’t enough to help you actually accomplish them. So, in the hopes of leading a more productive, organized life, we’ve gathered three essential ways to create a better to-do list:

1. Break Projects Into More Manageable Tasks

You know that feeling you get when you have a really big project or deadline looming? The frustrating, nagging feeling that you need to get this impossible task done, but you’ve got no idea where to start? There’s actually a name for this: the Zeigarnick effect. The feeling of internal tension and preoccupation we experience when a task has not yet been completed was first observed in the 1920s by Russian psychologist Bulma Zeigarnik, who found it curious that waiters had an easier time remembering complicated orders before they filled them than after.

The solution to this anxiety is simply breaking down the project into smaller, actionable tasks and planning which one will be the next step toward completing the whole project. For example, the next time you have to give a presentation, rather than thinking of the presentation as one exhausting task, begin by outlining different talking points and tackle each point one at a time.

2. Tackle The Task You Hate First

Mark Twain had this saying about getting the tough stuff done first.

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

Today this means that before we wade into checking email or distracting ourselves with social media, we can build momentum for the rest of the day and prevent ourselves from procrastinating by tackling the important stuff first.


Identify the tasks that are important and require your full mental capacities that you put off until the end of the day when your mental reserves are low. Once you’ve identified those tasks, reorganize your routine so that you can work on them uninterrupted for the first hour of the day.

3. Write A To-Done List

Dubbed the “Anti-To-Do List” by Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne, this approach reportedly gives you an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and spurs productivity throughout the week. According to Gascoigne, by writing a separate list of tasks you have accomplished, including ones that weren’t originally on your to-do list, you prevent yourself from feeling “knocked down” by the fact that you’re doing something not on your original list.

I’ve realized that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”

For the next week, as I go about organizing my daily and future tasks, I will put each of the above tips to use for a better, more effective to-do list, and I invite you to join me.

Challenge yourself to hack your to-do list with any or all of the tips above, and tell us what you loved and hated about it, if it worked or totally bombed, and we may feature your response in an upcoming Fast Company story. Responses must be submitted to by end of day Thursday, September 18, 2014.


About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere