If your to-do list feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. Many people feel like just jotting things down on a piece of paper or typing them into a digital note-keeper should be the extent of creating an effective to-do list. But then they continuously have problems actually getting things done.

How to master your to do list

In fact, when you’re really good at writing things down, you may actually be WORSE at getting them crossed off. Is that surprising?

The trouble isn’t starting a list or keeping up with a list. The problem is usually in setting priorities, making realistic expectations, and committing to a system. But the good news is that are several ways to improve your flow and skyrocket your productivity.

If you’re tired of constantly falling short when it comes to accomplishing your day’s tasks, then here are six strategies that will help you master your to-do list.

1. Pre-plan your day

How is this different from just planning your day? Why would we add on that pesky prefix? Pre- is a prefix that means prior to or in advance of. Pre-planning means getting ready for your day prior to that day starting. Which means the evening before.

So as you wrap up your day, take 10 minutes to look at what’s on your schedule for the next. Choose one top priority task (and perhaps two more secondary priorities), and make sure you fit them into your day’s plan.

First thing in the morning is the most productive time of day for most people. The energy is fresh, you’re the most rested, and stress levels are typically lowest. This is the best time to jump into focused work or tackle your high-priority task.

If you wait until the morning to make your day’s agenda, you’re wasting that golden time of day on planning. And it would be better spent on doing.

Focus on pre-planning, and you’ll find the flow of your day becomes much smoother and the work that matters most gets done.

2. Batch your tasks

Task-jumping is a productivity killer. Hopping from phone call to brainstorm to paperwork to email requires you to shift your focus constantly. And it’s not the best way to work.

I’m sure you’ve heard of multitasking, and perhaps you even think you’ve got it down to a science. Well, except that science actually proves there is no such thing. There is only task-switching. And when people do it, they can be up to 40 percent less productive (according to a 2001 study done by Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD).

So what can you do to avoid that 40 percent decrease in your productivity? You group your tasks into categories so that you can tackle similar tasks together. This minimizes how much your brain has to shift and recalibrate throughout the day.

Make all your phone calls back to back. Do all your errands on the same outing. Check and respond to your email only at set times throughout the day. And you should probably turn off those instant notifications that tell you when there’s a new message in your inbox. Those are the worst at draining your brain’s attention.

3. Block out your time

This is a perfect tip to add on to pre-planning your day and batching your tasks. Block your time. Have you heard of this? It works really well for helping you to set realistic expectations and then actually meet those expectations.

As you plan out what needs to get done in your day, actually schedule in the tasks into time chunks.

It might look like this, for example:

8 AM - 9 AM

[COMPUTER TASKS]

Check and respond to emails

9 AM - 11 AM

[FOCUS TASKS]

Idea brainstorm for new project (60 minutes)
Write article for blog (60 minutes)

11 AM - 12 PM

[SOCIAL TASKS]

Make 2 short client calls (20 minutes)
Meet with colleague in office (40 minutes)

12 PM - 2 PM

[OUTINGS]

Lunch (45 minutes)
Office supply errand (30 minutes)
Post office errand (30 minutes)
Drive time (15 minutes)

2 PM - 3 PM

[EASY OFFICE TASKS]

Paperwork (20 minutes)
Entering data (30 minutes)
Miscellaneous filing and organizing (10 minutes)

3 PM - 4 PM

[COMPUTER TASKS]

Check and respond to emails (30 minutes)
Social media scheduling content for the week (30 minutes)

4 PM - 4:45 PM

[SOCIAL TASKS]

Meeting with colleagues

4:45 PM - 5:00 PM

Pre-plan tomorrow’s schedule

This is just a sample. Your categories and tasks will vary based on your job.

You can modify, customize, and get more detailed based on specific tasks that you need to get done. But writing out the specifics helps you identify what is reasonable. Make sure to identify your number one priority and get it done early in the day, if possible.

This is great for work-day scheduling, but it also works for home tasks. If you are looking to make the most of your Saturday or if you are a stay-at-home-parent who needs to balance school drop-offs, food prep, laundry, and errands — this is a powerful system to help you get it all done.

4. Deconstruct your tasks

To-do lists can get really overwhelming when the tasks on them are too big. I mean, look at these two items.

1. “Write a book.”

vs.

2. “Write a three-paragraph introduction sharing my intention for the book.”

What seems more doable for a single day?

We tend to brush aside to-do tasks that feel like insurmountable obstacles. That doesn’t mean we should avoid big goals. It means we need to deconstruct those big goals into small, actionable items. Those items can then be fit into your daily schedule with ease.

Let’s look into the “write a book” task again. Even by changing it to “start my book,” it’s still a very loose idea. What does that entail? How do I know when I’ve completed that task? What is the first real step? Maybe it looks like this:

  1. Have a 60-minute brainstorm session for topic ideas.
  2. Schedule five 60-minute online research sessions on the topic (to include article research, videos from professional sources, and emailing five experts with requests for phone interviews.)
  3. Organize research in a three-hour morning session.
  4. Create an outline for the book content.

These are real tasks that I can schedule. They are not abstract ideas. And they enable progress towards my big goal.

5. Tune in to your peak times

This tip is less about your list and more about your personal rhythms. Because you’ll be able to master your to-do list most effectively if you align the right tasks with the right times of the day.

When do you have the most clarity? When are you most energetic? When are you most tired and foggy-brained? How often do you find you need a break?

Get to know your patterns, and then work around them. For instance, if you are most creative in the morning, always do idea generation or brainstorming meetings first thing. If you always feel tired and unfocused after lunch, avoid high-focus tasks at that time and instead do routine tasks like responding to email or simple paperwork. Or perhaps scheduling phone calls after lunch works for you because being social gets you out of the slump.

It’s also a good idea to schedule your most dreaded tasks earlier in the day. What happens when you schedule it towards the end of the day? You end up spending the whole day bubbling with anxiety.

Time your tasks right and you’ll see a huge leap in productivity.

6. Streamline your tools

It’s tough to manage your schedule when you have six different sources of action items. Maybe you put things in your calendar. But maybe you also email or text yourself reminders. Maybe you have a digital system (or perhaps more than one). Maybe you even have good ole pen and paper lists lying around.

This makes your brain have to work SO HARD.

You will never master your to-do list if you can’t keep it all together. So get everything into one place so you can see what actually needs doing. Being able to make checklists, bulleted reminders, and general ideas all within the same tool will minimize confusion and maximize the time you have to actually work towards checking things off and crossing things out.

You can keep multiple types of lists (e.g. house organization, work, yearly goals, kids’ activities), but if you keep them gathered in one place, you’ll make it a lot easier on yourself.

To sum it up:

To-do lists don’t have to be intimidating. Nor do they have to remain unfinished at the end of every day. There are many ways to approach them, but when you can create a systematic approach that you use every single day, then it becomes easier. Getting things done becomes a habit! That’s pretty amazing.

So as you are thinking about how to re-vamp your own system, remember to pre-plan, batch, block, deconstruct, tune in, and streamline. Each of these on their own will give you a big boost towards productivity, and when you use them all in combination, you will master your to-do list in no time.