5 Tips for Writing To-Do Lists (and actually checking things off them!)

Posted by on Feb 2, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on 5 Tips for Writing To-Do Lists (and actually checking things off them!)

5 Tips for Writing To-Do Lists (and actually checking things off them!)
“Had a big to-do list of things for today but I only got zero of them done” – Sarah Silverman

I am pretty sure I came out of the womb with a million and one things I wanted to get done! Okay, well at the very least, I have early childhood memories of writing things down and systematically checking them off.  I LOVE getting things done, but what I love even more is getting things done that I had written down primarily for the purpose of getting that “check-it-off” feeling.

As I’ve gotten older, the writing and accomplishment of tasks has grown less exciting as it has overwhelming. With each year (each job, each kid, each friend, each relationship, each school, each sport, each party, each event) there has sprouted another set of “to-do’s” that seem damn near impossible to dwindle down to an accomplishable length. I was talking [Read: bitching and moaning] about this predicament with a friend of mine who was having some of the same struggles. I shared with her some of the strategies I have developed over the years to keep up productivity, albeit with the focus being on the outcome: that magical checkmark after each item. Apparently my suggestions were really helpful for her and it had given me a newfound motivation for my list-writing as well, so I decided to share my thoughts with all of you!


1. Go Smart-Phone Style. 

I do this with shopping lists too. Inevitably, if I write the perfect, most exhaustive list of to-dos, they end up in a kids backpack, a dog’s digestive track, or at home when I’m out and about and actually need it. Put it in your phone (there are a million and one To-Do List Apps to help with this). I just use the “Reminder” app in my iPhone and it works great and is ALWAYS with me since I’ve pretty much figured out how to remember my phone when I leave the house. Pretty much. Well, mostly.

2. Divide to Conquer. 

When you have one giant, never ending, Costco-receipt-length list of things to do, the wave of overwhelmed-ness is going to wipe out any hope of actually getting anything done. So I’ve divided my lists into the different areas of my life. There is a list for each job (Yeah, I have three. My clear obsession with writing lists is the least of my problems.) plus a “personal” list. This helps me stay organized. Often when I’m at an important meeting, for example, I will have it’s corresponding list open so I can write tasks down, right there in the meeting, and can refer back to it. Here’s what mine looks like:


3. Pick Six.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. How do you eliminate to-dos? One check-mark at a time. You’ll notice from the photo above that in addition to having a category for each job plus a personal category, I’ve got a “Do Today” list.  You might also notice that most of my lists have plenty of items on them…and this photo was taken at the beginning of the day before I added at least ten things to each of the categories. If I had to look at one giant list of 33+ things that needed to be done every day, I would likely feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start and then, per usual, nothing would get done. All of my lists grow on a daily basis, except for the “Do Today” list. I read somewhere (and I can’t remember where or I swear I would cite it!) that 6 is the magic, accomplishable number of tasks we should aim to do each day. So, every morning (or sometimes the night before) I pick 6 things from the other lists that I am going to accomplish in that one day, and I move them to my “Do Today” list. I can tell you, that more often than not, I get all of them done! And sometimes if I am super efficient that day, I’ll move a few more over and tackle them as well!

4. Be Reasonable.

Tip number 3 IS NOT realistic if I can’t make a habit of tip number 4. When I’m going through my lists and deciding what to do in a day, I MUST agree with myself to be reasonable. I won’t decide that I’m going to get 40 loads of laundry done when I also have to drive all over town getting taxiing kids for 7 1/2 hours that afternoon. I won’t decide to tackle writing a post on a subject that I know is going to take me a lot of time in research if I won’t even be home to sit down to write until 8:30pm (anything pm is not my best writing time). I start out being an underachiever so that in the end, when I get that satisfaction and gratification of knocking a few things off my list (even if they’re “simple” or “easy” things) it instantaneously turns into motivation to get MORE done! It’s a great bait-and-switch game you can play on YOURSELF!

5. Give Yourself a Break.

Getting into new habits is not easy. My best advice is to keep trying this system for a couple of weeks even, to let the strategies settle and work themselves out. So you only get 4 out of 6 things done in a day. Sweet! You got FOUR things done today! So you got zero of them done. Well at least you’ve already got the check list written up for tomorrow! Just go back to it each morning and celebrate the small victories until they become habitual, giant victories. Maybe your life requires a little more productivity than you’ve been able to eek out lately and you’ll find these suggestions useful. But remember, we’re not the do-everything machines this world has turned us into so be kind to yourself!