How to Write a To-Do List

See also: Setting Personal Goals

To-Do lists have reportedly been around since the early twentieth century, when they were introduced as a way to improve productivity. The vast majority of people would probably admit to using them at least from time to time as a way of managing their workload and flow.

Somehow, though, some people seem to use them much more efficiently than others.

This page provides some advice to help improve your To-Do list writing, and ensure that your efficiency increases.

Why do To-Do Lists Help?

Tricking Your Brain

To-Do lists work for one main reason:

We tend to worry about things that we have left uncompleted

Our brains like things to be finished off and tidy, which means that we worry about things that need doing. That ought to mean that making a list of things to do makes us more worried, but it turns out that it actually tricks the brain into thinking that the task has been done.

In other words, writing things down on a to-do list means that you stop worrying, and actually have time to prioritise and then complete your tasks.

But this handy brain-trick is also the reason why some to-do lists don’t work: they are too long, or too hard, to complete, and we start worrying again. You need to be able to tick items off your to-do list or you will start to worry again.

Fortunately, there are some simple ways in which you can write to-do lists that help you to achieve more.

These include:

1. Have more than one list

If you are the kind of person that cannot remember things if they are not written down, then it is worth having two (or more) lists:

  • The ongoing list of ‘things that need doing at some stage, when I have time’, which can get as long as you like or need; and
  • The list of tasks that you need to complete within a defined period (today, or this week, for example), which needs to remain short and manageable.

Both of these are To-Do lists, of a sort, but with different purposes.

The first is a reminder of everything that needs doing at some stage. It is helpful if you can read everything on it at once, so keeping it to one page of a notebook or on screen is good.

The second is a way of prioritising and focusing your attention, so that you do the things that matter most when you have most energy.

The things from the first list—if they are important enough—should eventually make it onto the second list. If they turn out not to be important enough, then you can delete them.

2. Keep your daily or weekly lists manageable

Some people suggest that your daily list should contain no more than three items. Three to five is probably the optimum, because you are likely to be able to achieve that more often than not, but some people say aim for just one, and then anything more is a bonus.

Of course that does not mean that you cannot do more, if you have time. You can just look back at either your weekly list, or your ongoing list, and choose another task. It is, however, helpful to keep your ambitions manageable.

Too long a list can cause anxiety and even task paralysis, as you fret about whether you will have time to complete all your tasks, and how many things are left to do.

It is better to have a shorter list, and a feeling of accomplishment when it is complete.

3.Break tasks down into smaller steps, and be as precise as possible

One of the biggest problems with to-do lists is not being able to tick things off, because even when you do something, the task is still not finished. This leads to a sense of frustration, because you keep adding things to your list, but never ticking them off.

Research also shows that vague tasks make us more likely to procrastinate.

It is therefore important to be as precise as possible, and break tasks down into smaller steps, especially in your daily or weekly list.

You should also focus on the things that you need to do, rather than where someone else is currently responsible.

For example, instead of saying “Sort tax return”, break it down further. Start with “Gather together information needed for tax return”, then move on to “Check online access”, “Complete all personal information on tax return form”, and/or “Send information to accountant”. Because these are easier to manage, you are more likely to do them.

Keeping the overall end-point in mind

It is, of course, important to make sure that the overall target, for example, of submitting your tax return, does not get lost.

You can get round that by making sure that you write the next step on your overall list as you tick each previous step off.

4. Keep your list up to date

One of the most important tasks each day or week is to think about what you need to do in the next period. Taking time to plan, and particularly to review your overall list and make sure that you move jobs from there to your daily or weekly list as they become urgent, means that you will not forget to do anything on the overall list.

The time you take to do this need not be more than about five minutes each day, if that.

You should also check your overall list and remove anything that you realise that you have no intention of doing. This might be because you no longer want to do it, or because the time is past.

Make your list work for you

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that your list should work for you, not the other way round.

It is a tool, not your master.

The best way to learn to write a to-do list, in practice, is to try things out, and find out what works for you.