What Happened When Fast Company Staff Created Better To-Do Lists

Hint: We felt happier, more relaxed, and more accomplished.

What Happened When Fast Company Staff Created Better To-Do Lists
[Photo: Flickr user Stacy Spensley]

I used to be an extremely disorganized person.


Friends complained I was “flaky” because I was often a no-show–no excuse other than I simply forgot.

One of my German professors even had a running bit with the rest of the class whenever we had an off-campus excursion. It went a little something like, “Wo ist Rachel?” (“Where is Rachel”) to which the class would reply in unison, “Keine Ahnung!” (No idea!”)

Being the butt of so many ditz jokes took its toll on me, and I realized if I was ever to become a truly “functional adult,” I needed to get my act together.

I once tried Ginkgo biloba supplements in hopes of improving my memory, but the real shift came when I (finally) listened to my mom and just started writing things down.

Creating a simple to-do list every day has helped me stay on top of what I need to get done with out worrying that I forget something important.

But I’m still searching for better ways to stay organized–which was one major inspiration for the new habit challenge series. So last week’s challenge to create a better version of my beloved to-do list seemed like the perfect opportunity.


Because making an exhaustive list of all the things you need to do isn’t enough to help you actually accomplish them, we challenged ourselves to use three tips to create a more effective to-do list. So did they work? A few of our staffers weigh in:

1. Break Projects Into More Manageable Tasks

By simply breaking down large projects into smaller, actionable tasks, we are able to alleviate the anxiety and nagging feelings that come with knowing we haven’t finished something yet.

For me this meant breaking down the time-consuming task of editing into pieces. I wrote down “edit x story,” “edit y story,” and “edit z story” instead of the overarching concept of simply, “edit.” This tip was helpful and made the job seem more manageable, though since I’m already used to breaking tasks up into little pieces, it didn’t seem quite so revolutionary to me.

However, Editorial Assistant Miles Kohrman has a different take on the matter.

Miles Kohrman’s Master List

Kohrman says that he rarely kept a to-do list; he usually feels capable of managing his tasks without one. But when he has multiple projects on his plate, he writes out what he calls “a master list” that he separates by project into smaller tasks.

“Having everything in one place is relaxing,” he says. “It frees up the part of my brain that’s normally remembering what I need to do and prevents me from becoming overwhelmed–it’s like a home base for all my tasks.”


2. Tackle The Task You Hate First

This tip helps us build momentum for the rest of the day and prevent us from procrastinating by tackling the important stuff first. Based on a saying by Mark Twain, who compares tackling our most mentally challenging tasks first to eating a live frog, this trick is meant to help you accomplish these tasks before your mental energy runs out.

But while this all sounds well and good, this trick was challenging for me since particular tasks in my day require particular timing. For example, promoting stories on social media and making sure all of the next day’s stories are in need to be completed early on in the day regardless of if they are my favorite or least favorite tasks.

Rachel Gillett’s Live Frogs

I compromised by ordering my day using Google’s Keep app with the timely and mentally challenging tasks taking priority. While certain tasks took precedence before I could “eat my frog,” once those were out of the way I was able to focus on the more mentally challenging tasks like editing or writing up front.

Once complete, the rest of my daily tasks were less time sensitive. I tackled another of my more mentally challenging tasks (reviewing submission) these right after my edits, and once they were complete, the rest of my day felt like a breeze.

3. Write A To-Done List

Quite possibly my favorite part of this challenge was keeping a to-done list. While it was frustrating at first to keep a log of what I’d done each day, this tip turned out to be the most helpful part of the challenge.

The premise is that as we run down our to-do lists, we are often interrupted by pressing tasks that never made it onto the list. Oftentimes we forget these components in our day, and when all’s said and done, we feel unaccomplished when there are still tasks left on our list.


By creating a to-done list, we alleviate that feeling of being unaccomplished because we can see all the important things we do during the day. Moreover, we have a more realistic sense of what our future to-do lists should look like.

By chronically each thing I accomplished as it happened, I noticed that I actually do more than I think. I was relieved to see that I don’t completely and utterly waste my time. And what’s more, I began incorporating some of these tasks into my to-do lists to be more realistic about my time.

Sam Cole’s List Journal

Editorial freelancer Sam Cole realized she had already been compiling a to-done list ever since we published an article about it in August. She says jotting down her tasks as she completes them not only gives her a sense of accomplishment, but helps her stay on track.

“Working with Fast Company, there are a lot of “moving parts” for editorial staff to keep track of,” she says. “Unless I visualize what I’m doing, or have done, throughout the day, I’m bound to let something slip through the cracks.”

An added bonus, Cole uses what she calls her “list journal” as a creative outlet. She says she doodles the date, the weather, and any inspirational quotes she finds as she sips her coffee in the morning because of the meditative effect it has on her. “Using my hands to write and draw–as terrible or silly as the drawings can be–feels like a much better break than scrolling dead-eyed through Facebook or Twitter feeds,” she says.

The verdict: We’re keeping the habit! Better to-do lists for all!


About the author

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