Not all To-Do lists are created equal: 7 Tips to Getting It Right

If there’s one thing all good missives about productivity have in common, it’s the to-do list. Of course, jotting down the tasks that need to be completed is a good idea. Having a running list of your responsibilities and their associated deadlines at your fingertips is a natural way to keep track of them (and to keep you on track to complete them!). The mistake in these articles, however, is assuming you know how to craft the sort of to-do list that makes a difference. Believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to get yourself organized on paper, and these seven tips will help you get it right.

Pick the right medium.

Yellow Post-It Notes, a small pad of paper, a clean leaf of paper in your favorite journal, an app … where do you keep track of your tasks? I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The best method to create and track your to-do list is whatever one you’re going to use. That’s it. That fancy app your mentor swears by isn’t going to serve you well if you never open it. The small self-adhesive sheet stuck up on the wall near your desk fails if you ignore it. Experiment to determine what method meshes with your work style.

Quality not quantity.

Many wear being busy like a badge of honor. The longer our to-do list (and the more we can check off it), the more valuable we must be. There are two issues with this approach. First, that long list can overwhelm and demoralize us. Second, to bolster our sense of accomplishment, we may tack on a lot of small, menial tasks and then relish in our ability to check off volume vs. value. That large group of completed tasks, however, doesn’t necessarily reflect priority tasks. Skip the long list. Focus on the items that bring value and those tasks with deadlines attached to them. Leave routine tasks off.

Active not passive. Specific not vague.

Words matter. Lead each item of your to-do list with an action verb. Be concise about what the task involves. For example, instead of simply stating “reviews,” your list should read: “Write performance reviews for John, Mary, and Constance.”

Don’t skip the numbers.

Prioritize the tasks on your list. Put the most important or pressing item at the top and wrap the list with the item that has the longest lead time or is the lowest value item on your plate at the moment. Now take it one step further. Estimate how long each task should take and include that information on your list. Also make note of any deadlines, budgetary concerns, or other pertinent data that may impact the task.

Give columns a chance.

You’re a woman wearing many hats. Your to-do list can reflect this. Consider dividing out your tasks into work-related and personal items. Another variant to this model is creating a multi-column list that highlights projects and appointments on the left, and a subset of tasks to be completed for each of those on the right. For example, the first item on the left may read “Attend staff meeting @ 9am.” To the right, your list may say “Complete budget proposal for product launch. Assign tasks for Nov trade show. Discuss status updates on new web site launch.”

Be flexible.

Even on your best days, there may be tasks that see little progress. There’s a proverbial fire to be put out. An unplanned meeting to discuss a priority client took precedence over your afternoon plans. The flu kept half your team home and rendered your morning staff meeting less than productive. Be willing to float items to tomorrow’s list, to add and remove tasks as your day demands, or to give more time to something you expected to be less a priority when you first jotted down the list. Think of your to-do list as the GPS of your day. It’s okay to ‘recalculate’ your day’s route from time to time.

Make it personal.

The number one rule to successful to-do list building is this: Make it yours. If you work best with one long, running list that uses shorthand and stays low on the details, then go for it! Effective to-do lists are used to-do list. Find your style and work it!