Ah, the daily to-do list. Nothing like a list of chores to stare at that really sends home the idea that you’re an adult and you have things that need to get done. Writing down tasks is wildly helpful. It allows you to clear out the nest of tasks floating in your head, freeing up mental space and giving you a way to sort items rationally. However, a lot of do-to lists are just that: lists. They have no system or plan in place. They’re simply a bunch of random tasks. Staring at one is a surefire way to feel stressed and not accomplished. The proper to-do list is gives you a good game plan and makes it simpler to cross shit off at the end of the day. So what are the best tips to keep in mind? This list of tips can help put you at ease and prime you to get what needs to be done. Consider it a guideline for making your to-do list, well, doable.
Adjust Your Mindset
There’s no way around it: Scanning a list of all tasks you need to complete is a bummer and, let’s face it, a bit soul-suffocating. One of the most important things to do, then, is to structure your to-do lists to make them less so. “The key is not having a to-do list, but rather to find what makes completing these tasks meaningful and worth your time,” says Kyle Talbert, MA, LPCC, NCC. “I often ask people to write down next to each task on their to-do list to describe what difference it makes in your life that the task gets accomplished.” For instance, if one of the items on your list is to do the dishes, that’s not very meaningful. But, as Talbert puts it, the task is bigger than you. “If you can provide your spouse relief from exhaustion, frizzle, edginess and bitterness, even for a moment — I wonder what different would it make? For you? Your spouse?”
“When we are able to identify what difference the accomplished task makes, we are able to clearly identify the priorities that provides meaning to the effort and energy (that we often don’t have) to give to these tasks,” Talbert adds. “We know where to focus and push forward, and, more importantly, we know where to let go.” In the end, this shit in thinking makes your list not just tasks to complete but meaningful, actionable items you can do to make your life — and someone else’s a bit easier.
Figure Out What’s Most Fulfilling
Maybe you like to strike off the hardest tasks first. Maybe you need to get a full head of steam and knock out some smaller tasks before tackling the big items. It’s important to figure out what works best for your brain. “Some people feel accomplished when they’ve knocked off the easiest, quickest tasks first and others feel best when they’ve taken care of the hardest assignment,” says Lauren Cook, a Marriage and Family Therapist who works at the University of San Diego. “Know what makes you feel most fulfilled and start there.” In either case, it’s best practice to write your list in the morning. Because who want to stare at a huge list of chores right before bed?
Find the Best Tool for You
Maybe it’s the notes app. Maybe it’s an index card. Maybe it’s a fancy leather-backed journal with a cool elastic band to make sure it stays shut. Whatever it is, it’s important to find what works for you. Ask yourself: Does writing by hand — and the ability to double underline or draw stars and really think about the task — make your listed responsibilities more intentional than they would pecking something out in an app does? Do you want to be able to see all the previous lists you’ve created so you can track your accomplishments over time? Do you want to be able to fit something easily in a jacket pocket? What works best is your call. But it’s crucial to find that thing and stick to it. Otherwise, the randomness of it all won’t help a system stick.
Remember: Less Is More
The purpose of a to-do list is to spill out and organize the jumble of tasks that are swarming around in your brain into a useful system. “Writing a better to do list means using dates to track when you’ll actually complete the items,” says Haselberger. “When we look at a big long list, it’s often overwhelming; deciding what you’ll do when, and then only looking at what you need to do today can cut down on the overwhelm and the analysis paralysis immensely.”
Adds Carlota Zimmerman, a lawyer, public speaker, and professional coach, “When clients show me their two or three page to-do list, I already know, before they even say it, that the next words out of their month, will be talking about how overwhelming, or exhausting the list is.” In other words, if you’re staring at a three-pages of chores, you might as well add “Buy Zantac” because it’s going to cause a good deal of agita when you look at what remains unfinished.
That Said, Write Everything Down
This may seem counterintuitive but it’s important to write all the short- and long-term tasks you know you have to accomplish so you can see them all in one place and de-clutter your brain. This isn’t the actual list, but rather a sorting system. Because once you have them out of your kind, you can look at them and organize them into the actual system instead of trying to self-edit in the moment.
Break Everything into Smaller Tasks. And Be Specific.
Say you are planning to build a toy chest for your toddler’s room. It’s silly to write down “build toy chest” on your to-do list because that will grow to parade-float size in your head as you stare at it for weeks. The better, more efficient option, then, is to slice that task up into the smaller items that you then divvy out during the week. “Take measurements of the space for wardrobe” and “Buy wood” sound much more doable?
Designate Your Priorities
The ideal daily to-do list is one that can, well, actually get done. This means you have to be ruthless and self-aware so as to not overwhelm yourself with a bazillion tasks that can’t be accomplished. The most urgent tasks, ie. those that need to be done now have to move from your master list to the small list. Make sure that they are designated as such. Then, add a few less urgent — but sort of pressing — minor tasks you know you can cross out and get a nice sense of accomplishment throughout the day. Finally, you want to sort them into a proper system. Ask: what should you do first? What time do you need to do what? What’s most urgent? What’s important? What’s both? It’s crucial to be self-aware.
Give Your Brain What It Needs
“Our subconscious loves direction,” says Kimberly Friedmutter, author of Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You’ve Always Wanted. This is why she wisely suggests to use big action descriptors on your list such as “Call!”, “Do!” and “Go!” when writing a to-do list to give your brain the encouragement it requires. “The reason this works is it compartmentalizes the task according to energy and interest,” she says. “If you’re out running errands, your list has your “Go!” to-do’s. If you have limited energy and time, you can simply make phone calls. If you are at your desk all day you can attack your “Do!” list comprised of emails to send.”
Going a little further, Heidi Grant-Halvorson, in an article in Psychology Today, suggests “If-Then” planning. “The trick,” she writes, “is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance.” This is as simple as stating “When it’s 12 pm today, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that project.” Why? Well, this scientifically backed hack has been shown, per Grant-Halvorson, to markedly increase the likelihood one reaches their set goal. “Studies, show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity for taking action when it arises.”
Don’t Check Off, Cross Off
A checkmark? Satisfying. Striking a line through a task? So much more so. And it’s better for your brain, too. “When you draw a line through a task well done, your sheet shows your productivity,” says Friedmutter. “A healthy subconscious loves to be productive so make it loud and clear once accomplished.” And recognizing and basking in accomplishment is what a to-do list is for — and what makes a proper system so satisfying.