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How to Write a To-Do List (And Get It Done)

Is there a more frustrating feeling? The sun’s set, the day’s disappeared, you’ve been non-stop busy. Only to look up and ask yourself, “what did I actually accomplish today?”.

And the penny drops. You didn’t do anything to move you closer to your goals.

That’s why to-do lists matter. Sure, they’re not the most exciting subject in the world, but what they do is. Because watching your goals come to life? Now that is exciting. Here’s how to write an effective to-do list.

How to write your to-do list

Step 1: Know your goals

Your to-do list will contain the tasks you’d like to accomplish each day. Ideally, these should correlate with the milestones you’re aiming to achieve each month or quarter.

Step 2: Break down your list

Once you know where you’re heading, break down those bigger projects into smaller tasks that’ll mark your progress along the way. For example, “write essay for class” might turn into “research essay”, then “outline essay” and so on.

This will help you build momentum and chart your progress.

Step 3: Choose controllable tasks

If your to-do list consists of tasks that require other people’s input to complete them, there’s a chance you’ll never get them done. Instead, look at what you can do to increase your chances of success.

For instance, “get presentation from Julie” might become “chase Julie for presentation”. That way, you can see the actions that you’re taking.

Step 4: Prioritise your tasks

Even those of us who write our to-do list with the best of intentions don’t always achieve everything we’d hoped for each day. But we can make some small changes to improve our chances.

Place your most important tasks at the top of your to-do list. That way, you’ll come to these tasks first when you’re likely to have more energy and more motivation. The lower priority tasks can sit at the bottom of your list, to be tackled if time and space allows.

Step 5: Make it manageable

Try to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a single day. If you never complete your to-do list, your motivation is going to dwindle.

If you’re finding that you're constantly missing out on your tasks, go the other way. Write a to-do list that you’re 100% sure you can achieve. And then build up your tasks from there, bit by bit.

Sitting at a desk, holding a coffee cup and writing in a notepad

A big focus on the little things

It’s easy to forget about the power of tiny actions. But those little things add up. They come together to create something special. Those daily tasks move you towards your goals. Through sustained action, purposeful habits and consistency, you’re able to create the change you’ve been dreaming of for so long.

So yes, it all adds up. But it also directs your focus. When your mind is wandering and you know you’re meant to be doing “something”, your to-do list enables you to direct your energy towards what’s important.

What you need to write an effective to-do list

Your to-do list tools are simple. So simple in fact, that there are only three of them:

  • A lined notepad - your to-do list notepad doesn’t have to be fancy. All you need is a pad of paper with plenty of space to add your daily tasks.
  • A pen - sure, this one is obvious. But depending on your to-do list format, you might want to choose a few different colours so that you can colour-code your tasks with ease.
  • A clear idea of your goals - admittedly, this is the trickiest thing on the list. But it’s also the most important. You need to know where you’re going, in order to plan your path there. This guide can help you with that.
A to-do list written in a lined notepad, surrounded by stationery and desk essentials

How to make a to-do list on paper

Writing your to-do list on paper is a totally different experience from creating a digital version on your phone or computer. Writing your goals by hand (and then checking them off) can provide a sense of achievement that’s unparalleled in the digital world.

Not only that, but you’ve got a hard copy of your list that can sit in front of you all day long, as a constant reminder of your focus. It’s not getting lost in a sea of endless tabs, apps and notifications. You’re not opening up your phone to check your tasks and finding yourself on TikTok again thanks to that pesky muscle memory.

There’s something so calming about checking your to-do list each morning, and writing it out again each night. That’s not to say you can’t still automate your to-do list. Schedule notifications for your reminders and timely tasks so you get a push notification at certain points throughout your day.

Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.

Finding an effective to-do list format

Work vs personal

There are numerous different ways to format your to-do list, dictated by your presence and personal style.

 If you’re someone who struggles to draw a line in the sand between your work and personal life, then you might choose to have two separate to-do lists. One for your work tasks and one for your personal tasks. You could even keep them in separate notebooks to maintain that boundary further.

Or, if you’re super productive at work but let personal tasks slide, then a hybrid to-do list might work well for you. Try combining your to-do lists together, so everything you need to tackle is in one place with a clear overarching view of your day.

Priorities first

When your focus wanders and you find yourself easily distracted at the end of the day, shake up your to-do list. Move your top three priorities for the day or week to the top of your list, so they’re the first thing you come to each morning (the Power of 3 goal planner has a space just for this).

You’ll need to decide what’s essential and what’s extra, before working through your tasks in order of priority. That way, the important things always get done.

Types of tasks

This is where those colourful pens come in handy. Although a long to-do list isn’t always recommended, it is sometimes necessary. Especially when you’ve got a lot of shorter tasks to work through each day.

If that’s you, try colour coding. Sort your tasks into categories:

  • Meetings
  • Urgent
  • Nice-to-dos
  • Personal
  • Self-care
  • ... and so on

Assign a different colour to each of your tasks and then add it to your to-do list. It’ll be easy to see how your day is structured and where most of your time/energy is going.

Kanban style

In the tech world, a popular method of project management is the agile methodology. As part of this, tasks are organised in a kanban style. Meaning they’re grouped into “to-do”, “doing” and “done”.

This can be particularly helpful if you’re working on a series of projects that take a greater amount of time to complete.

Weekly vs daily

Whilst most of us think of to-do lists as a way to structure our days, they can be used to organise your weeks too.

It’s a good idea to have a clear overview of the tasks that you want to accomplish each week. This can help you plan what your areas of focus will be on any given day, whilst batching like tasks together for maximum efficiency. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to include every single task you’ll complete! Save that for your daily list instead.

If you find some motivation lying on the ground.. Please give it back. It's mine :)

What to do when your to-list isn’t working

When you’ve got too much to do

When you’re consistently missing out on completing your tasks, it’s time to pop your detective hat on and do a little investigating.

Start by tracking your time and seeing where it’s going (tools like Toggl can be particularly useful for this). Learn how long your tasks take you, watch to see if you’re more productive in the morning or afternoon and then use those lessons to restructure your to-do list format.

When you can’t focus

If you’ve got a great to-do list but can never focus on the task at hand, you’re going to get demoralised pretty quickly. Instead, give your brain a break by setting your to-do list to one side and focusing on a single task at a time.

This is called the “one-thing method”. Simply write one thing on a post it note and stick it in front of you, it’ll stay there until it’s completed.

When the same tasks keep getting carried over

If you’re moving the same task to tomorrow’s to-do list over and over again, ask yourself why. Do they match your goals? Are you struggling to stay accountable? Are they no longer relevant?

Answering these questions will help you take the action you need to get back on track.

Now it’s your turn to go out there and conquer your to-do list. Choose a format that appeals to you, and experiment with it!

The home of your to-do list