To-do lists have found a permanent place in the domain of productivity for the simple reason that they are so incredibly simple! Despite their straightforward nature, there are ways to tweak and improve upon the time-honored tradition of to-do lists.

This guide will explain the whats, whys, and hows of to-do lists and share specific recommendations for rules and digital tools that will up your to-do listing game.

Let’s do it.

To Do List
To Do List

On this page:

  1. What is a To Do List?
  2. Why Should You Have a To Do List?
  3. The Basics of Creating a To-Do List
  4. 3 Methods to Improve your To-Do list game
  5. Multiple Lists Method
  6. The 1-3-5 Rule
  7. The 5-1-30 Exercise
  8. The Best To Do List Apps

What is a To Do List?

A to-do list is a written list of tasks you need to do or things you plan to get accomplished in a certain period of time. Many people write a daily to-do list while others organize their lists by week, month, or some other relevant time period for the tasks specified.

To-do lists help the list keeper remember what needs to be done and is a widely used productivity tool. There is no shortage of things to get done, right? To-do lists help you get more of them checked off your list and work towards accomplishing bigger goals at the same time.

Why Should You Have a To Do List?

What would you say if I told you that taking a few minutes to write a daily to-do list could add a whopping $4000 to your monthly income? Writing a to-do list is essentially an action plan to achieve your goals.

Many people write a daily to-do list while others organize their lists by week, month, and year.

An oft-quoted study by David. G. Jensen showed that people who set goals and make an action plan to reach them earn an average of $4000 more per month than those that do not. There’s one very compelling financial reason to plan your day with the support of a to-do list. Money makes the world go round but it isn’t the only reason for getting into the habit of using a to-do list.

Hera are 5 reasons why you should have a To Do list:

#1 To-do lists help you prioritize and focus.

Each day brings a seemingly impossible number of responsibilities and an equally monumental number of distractions. The act of writing a list of things to do forces you to go through the process of prioritizing the tasks that require your immediate attention. You look at the big picture of your week or month or upcoming project deadline and assign yourself the small steps that are necessary to take along the way.

People who set goals and make an action plan to reach them earn an average of $4000 more per month than those that do not.

Distractions will happen, each and every day. It is the way of the modern working world. A to-do list can pull you back and remind you where to place your focus. When a distraction comes your way, all you have to do is look at your list and get back to the work of checking items off.

#2 To do lists are more reliable than your memory.

It is simply not possible to remember every little thing that needs to be done on a typical day. Most people find themselves with more on their plate than they can handle. This overwhelm impacts the functioning of our brains and we simply cannot remember it all. Think of your short term memory as a glass of water. If it is already full to the brim, you can’t add more without some water, or memories, spilling over the side. A list is more reliable than your memory. Writing and following a list of things to do makes you more reliable, too.

#3 Improve efficiency with a list of things to do.

Taking a small amount of time to organize your day with a list of things to do will save you time in the long run. Motivational speaker and author Brian Tracy says that “every minute you spend planning saves ten minutes in execution.” Once you have invested the short amount of time needed to create a to-do list up front, you can spend the rest of your day actively working on those tasks.

A list is more reliable than your memory. Writing and following a list of things to do makes you more reliable, too.

Without the list, you could lose valuable time thinking about what should come next or trying to remember what you were supposed to be doing. To-do lists greatly improve efficiency.

#4 Reduce stress and anxiety with to-do lists.

An astounding 80% of workers in the U.S. report having work-related stress and anxiety is the most common mental health condition on the planet. Stress and anxiety make it extremely difficult to be our best at work and at home. They are correlated with decreased productivity, forgetfulness, missed deadlines, burnout, and job dissatisfaction. They can show up as anger, impatience, and irritability, negatively impacting our personal relationships and lives.

To-do lists are a simple tool anyone can use to bring some order and direction to daily life. Also, every time you check an item off your list, you have a physiological response. A boost of feel-good chemicals is our body’s natural response and remedy for stress and anxiety. A natural high and improved productivity? Yes, please!

#5 To-do lists help us make progress towards the achievement of big goals.

The regular practice of writing and reviewing a list of things to do is proactive planning. It is the same kind of thinking and processing required for goal setting. It forces you to think critically about how you spent your time the day before and to make adjustments to how you will spend your upcoming time.

To-do lists are a simple tool anyone can use to bring some order and direction to daily life.

This process helps us get intentional with our goals and take active steps towards achieving them one item on the to-do list item at a time.

The Basics of Creating a To-Do List

We know that to-do lists are an incredibly powerful and beautifully simple tool that can help us get things done everyday and ultimately crush our goals. List making is personal. You will find the most effective method for you with some trial and error. Here are some basic principles that apply across the board in creating an effective to-do list along with considerations for tweaking your lists to personal perfection.

  1. Choose a medium that works best for you.
    A handwritten paper list is a classic choice that works well for many people. Dry erase, magnet or cork boards are also popular mediums for list-making and display.

    There is a wide body of scientific research that supports the idea that writing something down by hand enhances one’s ability to remember it. However, there is also research that shows that the major benefits of handwriting over keyboard typing are really only applicable to young kids who are becoming literate. That’s great news for all of us adults out there who would prefer to create lists in a digital format on a computer or smartphone. (Scroll down to see our top picks for to-do list apps.)
  2. Write lists that are short and specific.
    Everyone is busy and has more to do than time allows. This modern-day reality makes it tempting to dump every little thing you can think of onto one gigantic to-do list a mile long. Resist this temptation! A long list is completely overwhelming and will kill your motivation to get started. A daily to-do list should be short enough for each item to be checked off in a single day.

    Tasks on your to-do list should be very specific. Bigger goals or projects should be broken down into clear, attainable chunks that you can get done in one sitting. They say the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. You need to break down your big elephant tasks into manageable bites.
  3. Assign times or a schedule to your tasks.
    Putting a schedule together or assigning a time deadline to tasks is an excellent way to keep yourself on track throughout the day. Tasks could be organized into blocks of time, such as 2-4, or around times of day, such as before breakfast, after lunch, and by end of day.

    Don’t forget that it takes time to pull your daily list together, too. Build time for that process right into your schedule. It could be the first task on your list each morning or the last on your list each day. Whatever works best for you, you have to make time to organize your time!
  4. Expect the unexpected.
    Life does not unfold like a well-prepared list. There are going to be unexpected disruptions, unplanned problems, and unforeseen issues that will require your immediate attention. When the kid gets sick or the dog jumps the fence, your daily to-do list is going to take a backseat. That’s fine! This eventually should be expected.

    Prepare yourself by keeping your list short, building in extra time between tasks, and giving yourself time for self care throughout the day. When life drops a bomb in your lap and your day is blown, give yourself the space you need to deal with the fall out. You can come back to your list when all the pieces have been put back together.
  5. Focus on what you got done, not on what you didn’t.
    Lists should be tools that help reduce stress, not add to it. Look at your list and celebrate the things you checked off rather than ruminating on the things you didn’t get done. Just move those unfinished tasks to the new list and throw up your jazz hands for the rest. The real achievement is in showing up every day with purpose and intention and you accomplish that the minute you write the list.

3 Methods to Improve Your To-Do List Game

Some people seem to have an innate ability to organize their daily work into a clear and concise to-do list that perfectly captures their responsibilities for the day. The rest of us could use a little help pulling all of this together and improving our productivity. Here are three different methods anyone can use to write masterful to-do lists that get things done.

Multiple Lists Method

It may seem counterintuitive, but one way to make the most of your to-do list is to maintain more than one to-do list. Multiple lists can actually keep you more organized and on track and allow you to spend less time writing your daily lists. A common strategy is to use three lists: long-term, weekly, and daily.

  • Long-term list: This is where you will write the things you want or need to accomplish over the longer term, such as the month, quarter, or even year. Renovate the home office, take a writing class, or prepare the annual report would be listed here.
  • Weekly list: Things that need to be done this week should be placed on this list. Remove carpeting, research online writing courses, and compile quarterly sales data would be examples.
  • Daily list: This is the list that you will slay day and after box-ticking day. It’s going to contain everything you have to get done, well, today. Hire painters, register for that writing class, and create sales graphs would be daily list examples.

The 1-3-5 Rule

The idea behind the 1-3-5 Rule is that each work day, you commit to completing one major task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks. When the work week begins, make a comprehensive list of all the things you need to accomplish. Include any tasks that were left undone the week before as well as new tasks. Once you have dumped all of the tasks into a single list, it’s time to organize them into major, medium, and small categories. Your daily to-do list moving forward is thus organized into groups of 1-3-5 with your weekly laundry lists of tasks serving as the source.

So, how do you determine which category goes with each task? Time and effort need to be considered. In general major tasks would take 3-4 hours to complete, medium tasks would take 1-2 hours, and small tasks would take less than an hour. But the effort required can trump the time factor.

If a task takes longer than an hour but doesn’t take much thought or energy, it could still be considered a small task. Cleaning out the fridge is a good example. Alternatively, a task may only take 30 minutes but require a great deal of effort, such as having a difficult conversation with your client. That would be a major task despite it only taking about 30 minutes to complete.

The 5-1-30 Exercise

As we’ve seen throughout this article, to-do lists are daily tools that help us reach the bigger goals we set out for ourselves. The 5-1-30 exercise is a method that requires you to think through those big, long term goals and align them with your monthly, weekly, and daily goals. It begins with a thinking exercise.

Picture yourself far into the future. Determine what you’d like to have accomplished by then. Also, look at the flip side. What would you not want your life to look like. Sit in these considerations for a good while and attempt to really feel it on both sides. Once you have a clear picture of what you want your distant future to look like, it’s time to set some goals.

Narrow your lifelong ambitions down to SMART goals for 5 years, 1 year, and 30 days into the future. What specific milestones need to be achieved at these time intervals in order to create the life you want? From there, you can move from goal setting to list making on a weekly and daily basis.

The Best To Do List Apps

At the beginning of this guide we mentioned that list writing relies heavily on personal preference. There are many options available to people who prefer to keep their to-do list in the palm of their hand or in their pocket at all times. To-do list apps allow us to do just that. Here are the most popular that are worth trying out to create and conquer your to-do lists.