Tips for Better To-Do Lists

Shows to-do list in the background. List states "to do....everything!" and has a stickman holding his head. The post title, "Tips for Better To-Do Lists' is superimposed on the top.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I have become something of a to-do list aficionado.  I’ve been religiously using lists since having children.  That’s over 20 years of list making.

I’ve changed the way I’ve handled lists over the years and have adapted other people’s methods into my own process.   I frequently return to an article written by Eric Barker for Time Magazine: “The Morning Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity.”   It makes a lot of sense to me, from the ‘magic hours’  to the ‘starting ritual,’ to the ‘3 things that matter today.’

The low-tech list: For a while I was using an app to help me prioritize (135 List, which is free and works well for anyone trying to get in a habit of prioritizing). Now I’ve made the process even simpler.  I have a Notepad (digital…comes with PCs) text file saved for every day of the week:  Monday To-Do, Tuesday To-Do, etc.  I put the three big things I most want to accomplish at the top. Then I put the things that could be shifted to another day’s list at the bottom.  If errands are on my list, I copy-paste the list to my online calendar.  At the end of the day, whatever didn’t get accomplished is portioned out to the following day (or other days, if the next day is too busy).

Reevaluate the list in the afternoon: I realized 4 years ago that one list per day wasn’t really going to cut it for me anymore.  I needed to reevaluate in the early afternoon because some things became less-important and some things became more pressing.  This way, I’m still being thoughtful about my list and my tasks and not simply reacting to things that pop up. But I’m also incorporating things that pop up (sometimes they are important and need immediate attention).

Set timers to avoid a time-suck…or procrastination:   I use timers a lot: both for writing and promo.  I just type ‘set timer for 7 minutes’ into Google and let my computer keep track.  Timers work well for me for two reasons: one, it helps me avoid procrastination. If I know I need to update my website, seeing that I’ve allotted ten minutes for the task makes it a lot less-daunting.  Another reason timers work well for me is that they help keep me on task and focused.

Don’t  turn your list into a braindump:  There is definitely a place for an all-inclusive list…a braindump of a list that includes writing, promo, blogging, the dog’s vet checkup, Christmas shopping, etc.  But my advice is to have that master list separate from your to-do list.  The whole idea is to make the daily list manageable and approachable.   Then work in tasks from the master list to the daily list (breaking them down into bite-sized bits, if needed).

Are you a list person?  How do you set up your lists?

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Photo credit: john.schultz via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

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26 thoughts on “Tips for Better To-Do Lists

  1. Great tips… I do pretty much this, but I do it with pen and paper… and my diary with to do lists. I can’t rely on gadgets, and I don’t want to lose everything if my laptop crashes… anytime you have an IT person to update or open up your laptop you automatically lose your Post It etc content.

    1. Pen and paper works, too! Sometimes we all think better when we’re writing longhand.

      My to-do lists are on the cloud…on Google. So I can access them on my phone, laptop, library computer, etc. and won’t lose the lists if I have a crash. But you’re also right–if a hacker prevented me from reaching my account via ransomware, I’d be stuck. Old school can work best!

  2. Goodness, I love the idea of a timer for anything blog-related!

    I’ve started Bullet Journaling (in an old repurposed notebook, not the high end Moleskin) to keep track of lists and bigger picture projects. I was skeptical at first, but it’s turning out to be a really customizable method.

    1. Sometimes it’s good to know there’s an end to it! A timer helps with that, for sure.

      Oh gosh, I’ve heard so many good things about Bullet Journals and I’ve seen some gorgeous ones online. Keep toying with the idea of running with it. Worried I might overthink it, though. It sounds like it can be used in a very simple way, too.

      1. If you can get past the gorgeous, color-coordinated spreads people showcase on blogs, it’s really useful. The key is to think of items as “Collections” and to use an Index, which is a collection of collections, so to speak.

        But if you’re getting things done without carrying around a notebook, never mind :)

  3. I wander aimlessly throughout my day? I wish.

    Same as you, first thing is the “will get done” list then the “progress” items. If I stay focused, I seem to create extra time for accomplishment. If I just “pants” it, I run out of day.

    I do now block out time for writing. Edit and scene outline with coffee in the morning, composition in the evening. The day job has to stay in its day job boundaries.

    The only thing upending the schedule is an insistent foxhound who has his own entertainment schedule! He is staring at me now with his head on my leg. Time for walkies. Bunnies to chase.

    1. Sadly, it’s easy to run out of day. Smart to keep the day job in check.

      You’re good to the foxhound! I’m carefully ignoring the corgi puppy who wants a walk. Wee bit chilly out there right now. Since it’s going up to 63, I think I might wait for the 63 to happen, first. :)

      1. Corgi puppy?

        Readers demand pictures! [ Colleen’s favorite wine stopper is a corgi and we joke about replacing the hounds with corgis so they can follow her around like the Queen. Right now, one foxhound follows her around because … favorite person.]

  4. I’ve always kept a list. It usually starts in order of what I need to accomplish, but then I end up adding more and start jumping around.

    Although right now, I’ve only 3 things left on a list of 14 for today and two are half done!

  5. I am a long-time list maker as well. I have to write things down. Therefore I have a steno pad with me at all times, usually several pages of lists for different things. This helps me if I need to remember something. But what really helps my day to day is a sticky note with my top goals for the day. I find I usually try and get those done and I’m not overwhelmed with my steno pad of lists! :) I’m enjoying using a timer as well, for my writing chunks.

  6. Thanks for the link to the Time article with great references, including Cal Newport. Saturday I ordered another one of his books, Deep Work, on focused success. I feel some New Years Resolutions coming on…

  7. I’m a bit late to the party, Elizabeth, but I wanted to say what a great set of tips this is. It’s so easy to let time slip away, or use in ways that don’t make sense. With a good list, that’s not as likely to happen. I like the idea of re-evaluating the list, too. Things do change, and it’s good to be flexible.

  8. I’ve pretty much given up on daily to-do lists, other than for keeping a record of the things I still have to do. Otherwise I’ll forget about them. My management approach (such as it is) is much too chaotic for me to decide when I need to do something ahead of time.

    Even so, I think I’ll check out that article you mentioned. Thanks.

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