Much TO-DO About Something

Much TO-DO About Something

How to Create and Manage a To-Do List That Actually Works

The ol’ to-do list, task list, agenda, and so on.  Whatever your name for the one you use, it’s one of the most important items to keep you on track and productive.  But what’s the point of keeping a list of any kind if you just keep adding to it, perpetually re-writing it without every making actual progress, or continuing to forget to do things?  By creating a to-do list and actually learning how to use it you can increase your productivity and be sure that you are accomplishing tasks on time which helps develop your credibility.

I use to do lists in both my work life and my home life.  They look different for both because I have different needs for those worlds.  I’ll be writing about how I make and manage my to-do list for my home life next week, but some of the things I share here will apply and carry over.

  1. The first step of a good to-do list is choosing the best actual way to keep your list. There are a variety of ways to keep a list.  I’m a big fan of an electronic list.  Paper lists can cause trouble – they can get lost, get ruined by spilled drinks/food, they get messy and you waste time rewriting them, and they’re harder to use for long range planning/recurring tasks.  Do some research to find the best list for you.  My favorite is  I like it for a few reasons:
  • It is web based so I can access it anywhere but it has apps for the iphone and ipad so I can add things on my phone and it will sync easily. (They don’t have an app for androids yet unless that’s happened recently so be sure do research that before you get really excited about this one!)
  •  Photo Apr 08, 9 33 47 PMIt’s free, but for $3 a month it will allow you to keep unlimited categories. I use this since I have 4 different areas at work.  That way I can track what tasks I have to do in what areas.  I also keep a personal category that helps me track tasks on a long term basis. (I’ll explain this in a later post.)
  • It lets you set up recurring tasks for every day, every week, every month, every year, etc.
  • It allows you to add a task to your to do by forwarding an email directly to it. Check out the about section and watch the video for more details about this feature.  It’s really neat and will help you keep that inbox clean (read why I think that’s important and how to do it here).

There are lots of other online to-do lists that have similar features.  Some others (among many more) are,,  You need to do your own research and find the one that works for how you work.  Make sure the “look” works for you, the features do what you need them to do for what you do and then make a commitment.

  1. The second step of a good to-do list is creating a master task list. This is daunting and will probably make you want to throw up.  It’s okay, don’t feel like you have to do this all at once.  And know that every time I’ve shared this step with people the first reaction is an audible groan, the next is their eyes bugging out and then comes acceptance.  (I think they still say bad things about me as they make their lists, but that’s okay, it will be worth it!)  The master task list should include absolutely everything you can think of that you know that you have to do in the next 3 months – at least.    If you already have projects or events on the calendar past 3 months, then at the end of the 3 months one of your tasks needs to be “brainstorms tasks for next 3 months” so you can be sure to stay ahead of the game as you get this process under control.
  1. The third step of a good to-do list is making a master list of recurring tasks. Any tasks that happen on a regular basis – daily, weekly, monthly or yearly.  For example, if you put out a newsletter at the first of every month, then I would suggest that a recurring task “work on next month’s newsletter” is set up for the 25th of each month.
  1. The fourth step of a good to-do list is then assigning the items from your master task lists to actual days on your new to-do list. One of the mistakes I think people make is that they try to keep one master list and just work off of that all the time.  Instead, you should have tasks assigned to the day of the week that they need to be done and so you really end up creating smaller to-do lists that are actually manageable.   A few things to keep in mind as you complete this step:
  • You should always look at your calendar as you set up your to-do list. Assign tasks that you will have time to get accomplished during the time you that day.  For example, if you have meetings scheduled most of the day, don’t expect to get 20 things accomplished that day also.
  • Try to have a mix of small, administrative tasks and larger, more time consuming tasks each day. This will ensure that something will get accomplished every day, even if something comes up and you only have a little bit of time.

Now that your to-do list is set up, it’s all about maintaining it so that you can truly use it and be as productive as possible.  Here are a few tips to keep it mind as you begin to use it and learn to work the system:

  • Spend a little time at the end of each week looking at the next week’s calendar and the next week’s to-do lists to be sure that the days’ tasks still work with the days’ schedules. Rearrange and move around tasks before you start your week so you don’t start by being overwhelmed on Monday morning.
  • On a similar note, as I noted in the previous two posts in the Office category about keeping your desk and your inbox clean, you should also keep your to-do list clean. At the end of each day as you clear your desk and your inbox, you should then go through anything left on your to-do list for the day (if there is anything) and move the tasks to either the next day or to another day to be accomplished.  Many electronic to-do lists will just automatically roll over any unchecked tasks.  However, if you allow this without looking to see if you can really accomplish what’s left on today’s list according to what’s on the calendar for tomorrow you run the risk of allowing too many things to just continue to stack on to one day and become overwhelming.
  • Add anything unexpected that you did during your day that wasn’t originally on your list to your list and then check it off. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s important to keep up with what you did during the day, even if it’s not what you planned to do.  This can come in handy when you’re trying to track when something got finished (perhaps if your boss asks?!) and is just a general way to know where your time went for the day.
  • When in doubt, put it on the list. I say this because I think many people make the mistake of only putting the “big stuff” on their list assuming that they’ll just remember the other stuff or that it will just happen.  That’s how details get forgotten.  An example: any time I put a meeting on my calendar, I automatically put “put tasks from blah blah meeting minutes on to-do list.”  This way, I automatically have a follow up in place even if I don’t have details yet. Even if I don’t end up having any action items after a meeting, I can just take that item off my list but at least I knew that it was there as a safety net to remind me to follow up quickly after the meeting.

The key to a good to-do list is actually working this list.  You have to keep up with it on a daily basis, add to it, check items off and keep up with how it’s working with your schedule.  Keeping your expectations reasonable on a daily basis with smaller lists rather than working off a huge list will help you from feeling overwhelmed and as if you don’t even know where to start!

Good luck and I’d love to hear what to-do list you decide to use!


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