To-Do: Read This, Then Make a List

The classic “to-do list” can be a powerful tool to help you get more organized and be more productive. Not all to-do lists, however, are created equal. Before you grab a scrap of paper and start jotting down a list of items that demand your attention, let’s talk about what makes a good list that improves your time management and helps you reach your goals. 


A to-do list is not about goals and objectives. That sort of list is an entirely different topic that we’ve covered here and here. Good to-do lists are task-oriented. They may include actions that help you reach the items on your list of goals. The list may also contain administrative tasks you simply need to get done or components of a bigger project that demand your attention. “Earn my MBA” is a goal. “Request undergrad transcript for MBA application to local university” is a to-do list item. 

Be Specific 

We can debate whether something like “find a new job” belongs on your goal list or your to-do list. What isn’t up for debate is whether something like “find a new job” is specific enough to belong on a good to-do list. It’s not. It’s broad and it lacks the necessary specificity that will help you allocate time and resources properly. Break down your larger projects into small, to-do list chunks. Better entries would include: 

  • Refine resume
  • Identify and apply to 5 open positions today
  • Send follow-up/thank you note to Jen Smith at Last Interview Company
  • Spend 20-minutes engaging on LinkedIn with my network
  • Extend 5 LinkedIn connection requests within my target field

Keep It Short and Reasonable

Yes, your list should be concise. Identify what time span your to-dos cover. Is it a daily to-do list? Is it your list for the week? Is it project oriented? Keep your list reasonable for the time you have to devote to it. Today’s tasks shouldn’t require more than a full work day to complete. In fact, today’s list should require less time than a full work day to allow you flexibility to reprioritize, tackle things like filling that cup of coffee and grabbing lunch, and pinch-hitting unexpected tasks that pop up in the course of a normal day.

Use It

Having a to-do list is only good if you use a to-do list. Once you’ve jotted down the tasks you’re aiming to complete today, put it where you can easily see it. When you complete an item, cross it off. Did you realize that a task you included can wait for another day? Make note of that on the list itself. Need to address an unexpected task? Add it to your list. 

A to-do list can help you stay organized and on top of what you need to do. That’s true and it’s probably why you’ve jumped into creating them in the first place. However, a to-do list can also help keep us motivated and moving forward by giving us a sense of accomplishment as we put a line through tasks we’ve completed. 

Micro-Burst Celebrations

Speaking of a sense of accomplishment, take a moment to savor the progress of your to-do list. Maybe you started your day feeling overwhelmed at the things you needed to accomplish. You wrote down your list to help you stay focused and on-task. Seeing those items getting crossed off is a little snack of motivation throughout the day. Celebrate it. No, you don’t need to ring a bell or shout with each checked off task. However, you can take a moment to savor the satisfaction of completion. You can get up and pour yourself another cup of coffee. You can exhale and admire your handiwork. 

Find The Sweet Spot

What’s better: a handwritten list on paper or an app on your phone or computer that can help you manage your list? The answer may surprise you. Ready? The answer is “yes.” That’s it. “Yes.” But, wait, you asked an either/or question. How is “yes” the right answer? Listen, there is no right or wrong here. The right method of creating and maintaining your lists is the method that works best for you. There are some great apps that can help you prioritize and categorize your tasks. Those apps are the exact right tool for some folks. For others, the process of writing down tasks in your own handwriting is more effective. Experiment and find the method that best helps you…and then use it.