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  • Jodi Blake

Today's To-Do: Improve Your To-Do List

Cup of coffee, to-do list on notebook page and pencil on a desktop

Do you organize your life using lists, especially to-do lists? If yes, we are kindred spirits. But what if we could improve our lists to help us be more focused and productive?

On a typical day I consult a daily list of tasks I want/need to accomplish, but I also keep lists to plan out goals for the week or month, shopping lists for the grocery store or Target, and gift idea lists for Christmas or birthdays. If I’m planning to travel, then one of the first things I do is start a packing list.

I probably started making to-do lists when I was in high school to keep track of assignments and other tasks I needed to remember to do each night. The habit continued into my college years, especially as I became involved in campus organizations and had meetings and more responsibilities to remember.

Of course, once I began working my first job after college graduation, a daily to-do list was necessary so I could prioritize tasks to meet project deadlines.

My husband Dan even jokingly (at least I think it was jokingly) asked me several years ago if I have a master list of all of my lists. I don’t, but doesn’t that sound like a cool idea?

Although I’ve been a long-time list maker and user, I recognized that I could do better with lists. A few months ago, I completed Mike Vardy’s Building a Better To-Do List course available in LinkedIn Learning. Vardy is a productivity expert and author/host of the Productivityist blog and podcast. Many of the recommendations in his training lead me to make improvements in my lists.

Let me share the common mistakes I’ve corrected and other changes I’ve made in my lists, so you can decide how you might make improvements in your list making.

Create separate lists for different purposes

Instead of adding all of your tasks and goals to accomplish across an infinite stretch of time, it’s better to create separate lists that you can focus on in different ways.

Daily to-do lists are the most common type, but I also keep lists of goals for the month that I initially break down into weekly goals. From that breakdown I can create a daily list with the specific tasks that I expect or need to finish.

Don’t forget packing lists for a vacation or business trip, shopping lists, reading lists, or aspirational goals lists. There are bound to be related tasks for any of these lists that you’ll want to include on your daily to-do lists.

I also keep lists of quilting and cross-stitch projects on monthly goals lists. It lets me think about what I want to accomplish during the year. If you’re a crafter or have your own project-based goals, you may have several projects in progress with more new projects waiting to be started. By creating these goals lists, I can spread out the project tasks across weeks and finally add them to my daily to-do lists.

Make the next day’s to-do list at the end of the previous day

Woman sitting at a desk with papers, an open notebook and a laptop

When I was working, I discovered the end of my workday was the best time to organize my to-do list for the following day. I knew where I was with tasks and could reassess priorities based on new developments or my scheduled meetings but also based on how much availability I would have to complete tasks versus join calls and meetings. Then the next morning I would be all set to start working on tasks, knowing exactly what I should focus on.

I also found that this same process helped me stay organized with my non-work to-do lists. If I spent a few minutes during the evening to jot down my to-do list for the next day, the biggest benefit was that I could “shut off” my brain more easily as I tried to go to sleep. I don’t lie in bed worrying that I’ll forget to do something the next day.

Another bedtime trick I have used effectively when I FORGET to write down my to-do list for the next day involves just remembering the number of list items, especially if it’s a small number like two, three or four. Then the next morning I know the number of tasks and can almost always recall the exact tasks for my to-do list.

Clean up and focus your list items

Man sitting at a desk with a pencil in his hand and contemplating what to write on a piece of paper

As Vardy explains in his course, there are some common mistakes you can address that will clean up your to-do lists and make them better tools for getting things done.

  • Use action verbs to start your list items. For example, “Wash and dry blue jeans” is better than “Laundry” or “Do laundry” because you know what part of the laundry process to act on and even which clothes to gather up. If you need to write a report for work, then a better list item is “Outline main report sections” or “Add data tables to report” rather than “Write report.” For me, I like a parallel grammatical structure to my list items, so using action verbs helps me achieve that objective.

  • Break up larger tasks into smaller tasks that are more doable. Those larger tasks are just projects in disguise anyway. Even if you plan or need to finish the entire project in one day, you will be more motivated and can plan out your day more effectively if you see a list of smaller tasks. Let’s face it, most of us love the sense of completion when we can cross things off our to-do lists.

  • Trim your daily to-do list to include only the tasks you can complete in a day. I admit that this common list-making mistake is the hardest for me to correct. My intentions for what I “want” to accomplish in a day are often not realistic – unless I could figure out how to work at double speed or extend the day by a few more hours. Vardy suggests figuring out a benchmark number of tasks that you can accomplish in a day (or other time periods like a week or month for your non-daily to-do lists). You will probably need to consider if the tasks take short versus longer to complete when setting the benchmark. Knowing you can typically check off (10 or 20 tasks per day, for example) will allow you to be more successful while completing your list.

  • Include the right kinds of tasks and eliminate the wrong ones. This tip can really improve how effective your to-do lists are and speed up your list creation time. Throughout my career, I seemed to instinctively follow this tip, and I find I still do as I work on blog-related tasks on my own or in preparation for meeting with Heather, co-blog owner and writer. Add these tasks to your to-do lists:

    • Mundane tasks: Even though you might tell yourself you won’t forget these routine tasks, such as “Drop off dry cleaning” or “Submit expense report,” adding them to your list will be that extra insurance that you won’t.

    • Preparation tasks for appointments, meetings, or events: A glance at your calendar will let you know when these activities are scheduled, but it may slip your mind to complete some preparation tasks beforehand and with enough lead time.

    • Big plans and ideas: If you have more complex or aspirational goals like “Tour Costa Rica” or “Take leadership professional development courses,” then these items belong on your longer-term to-do list so you don’t forget about them and so you can break them down into actionable tasks to add to your daily to-do lists at the appropriate times.

Delete these tasks from your to-do lists:

  • Meetings or appointments with others: These items are not always within your control to accomplish. Make sure they are on your calendar instead, but do remember to add preparation tasks and any action items assigned to you during the meeting, if necessary, to your to-do list.

  • Appointments with yourself: If you set aside time in your calendar to get work done rather than be available for meetings with others, that’s a great productivity tip. It doesn’t need to be added to your to-do list. Reminding yourself to schedule this work time, however, is a perfect reminder task to add.

What else can be improved on your lists?

Woman sitting on a couch holding a phone with a notebook and cup of coffee on the coffee table in front of her

As I continue to become better at creating to-do lists and more productive at completing list tasks, I know there is still more to learn and incorporate into my list-making strategies.

  • In what ways can I better gauge task durations, so my daily benchmark is more accurate?

  • How can I better prioritize tasks more efficiently, so I complete the most important ones first?

  • How can digital list apps help me be more productive or make my lists more accessible?

I’ll be investigating more strategies and sharing them with you in a future post.

What strategies do you use to make your to-do lists more effective? Leave a comment below to share them with us and other blog readers.


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