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Make your to-do list work for you with these 5 strategies

A woman of color looks at a blue to-do list on a gray wall, contemplating what to write on it with a marker in her hand.
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Leonie is an ecotrophologist. She writes articles for foodspring about nutrition and healthy living. She also creates free food programs designed to help you reach your goals.

A to-do list helps you structure your projects and increase your productivity — assuming you’re using this tool correctly. Read here how to-do lists can make your day a little bit easier.

What’s a to-do list?

To-do lists are one of the most important tools to bring more structure and better project management to everyday life. No wonder many people struggle to get anything done without checking off their list.

On that list, you note down point by point which tasks – whether professional or personal – need to be completed, either on a specific day, a week, or a project.

They can be used to:

  • clearly lay out your plan
  • map priorities
  • Record progress and successes

They serve to collect pending tasks, to order them according to their importance, and to check them off as soon as it’s completed. Doing this gives a better overview of your time and makes it easier to monitor success.

What’s the point of to-do lists?

We all know how important it is to avoid stress, so whatever you can do to take the pressure out of your everyday life is a good idea. They’re a simple and effective way to protect yourself from overload. They’ll show you your due dates in black and white and allow you to prioritize those tasks or postpone them to another day when your workload’s too heavy.

Two key things happen when we keep to-do lists:

  1. You free up your memory: unfinished projects stay in your head and cause chaos. To-do lists free you from these thoughts and help you to focus on the real matter at hand. As a result, your concentration will improve.
  2. You activate your reward system: When you check a box, your brain’s reward system is activated and releases the happiness hormone dopamine. As a result, you’ll feel more motivated and work more productively.

Tip: Your success formula for more motivation – learn everything you need to know here.

Advantages and disadvantages of to-do lists

To-do lists are incredibly handy, but they can also have a few downsides. Here’s an overview of some pros and cons:

 

Pros Cons
  • easy to use
  • provide an overview of pending work
  • lay out your due dates
  • unload your memory
  • motivate you
  • give your time more structure
  • increase concentration and efficiency
  • lists that are too long can be overwhelming and stressful
  • distract from the actual work
  • their focus is on the check-off and not on the accomplishment itself
  • it’s easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture

To-do lists: Examples

There are several ways to keep a to-do list. Basically, you can write down your to-dos on a piece of paper or post-it. Your calendar or a notebook are also good places for daily to-dos. Alternatively, an Excel spreadsheet or a list app on your smartphone are great options.

Choose a medium and place that feels cohesive to you and best integrates with your daily routines. If you’re in the kitchen a lot, you can hang the to-do list on the fridge. If you spend most of your time on your device, a digital list might be your best option.

There are three main types of to-do lists:

  1. Daily to-do list, where you write down each item in order of importance: As soon as you’ve completed one, you cross it out or check it off.
  2. Extended to-do list: In addition to upcoming work, you’ll note the estimated time required to complete them. This type of to-do list can be especially useful for larger needs.
  3. Complex to-do list: In this form, you record everything that’s relevant to a project: from the amount of time needed to who’s responsible for what, resources required, and so on. The disadvantage of the complex list is that you can quickly lose track of the bigger picture. So, it’s important to concentrate on the essentials. This version makes sense when more than one person is working on a project.

Tips for good to-do lists

To make sure a to-do list really enhances your day – and makes your life easier – there are a few things you should keep in mind. Here are the best tips around your task management:

Follow the 1-3-5 rule

For many, one difficulty is deciding what to put on a to-do list and how many tasks make sense. The 1-3-5 rule can help you tackle this first step.

Put only one to-do at the top of your list. This is the most important item, which usually eats up the most time. Below that, you write down three to-dos that are also important and should be done, but seem less urgent. This is followed by five small to-dos that could also be done the next day if necessary.

Write your to-do list in the evening or at the beginning of the week

Many people create their to-do list early in the morning. This seems reasonable, but it can inhibit your productivity because you lose valuable time prioritizing your tasks. Instead, get into the habit of writing down your to-dos the night before as part of your evening routine. This way, all your unfinished tasks are still in your head, so you won’t risk forgetting anything important. You can sleep more relaxed and start the next morning fresh and productive.

Another option is to make your list at the beginning of each week for the next seven days. This gives you a good overview of your weekly planning and allows you to respond quickly when new requests come in.

Prioritize your time wisely

The most important thing about a to-do list is prioritizing the matter at hand. If you write reminders down randomly on a sheet of paper, you won’t be helped much. In the end, you’ll wind up only doing what you enjoy, and the unpleasant but urgent chores, such as bookkeeping, will be left undone.

The so-called Eisenhower matrix can help you prioritize your notes. To make use of this time management method, sort your to-dos into one of the following categories:

  • A-tasks (urgent and important): These should be completed immediately.
  • B-tasks (important, but not urgent): These are usually long-term, more extensive to-dos. You can do them later or delegate them.
  • C-tasks (urgent but not important): These can be delegated or you can schedule a block of time for them every day.
  • D-tasks (not urgent, not important): These are hardly important, you can do them if there is still time after all others.

If you apply the 1-3-5 rule in addition to this matrix, your to-do list could look like this:

  1. A-Task: Prep for meeting
  2. B-Task: Work on presentation
  3. C-Task: Cancel trip
  4. C-Task: Pay bills
  5. B-Task: Work on presentation
  6. B-Task: Work on presentation
  7. B-Task: Work on presentation
  8. C-Task: File invoice receipts
  9. D-Task: Order office supplies

Break larger to-dos into smaller tasks

If you have so many tasks that you can only finish couple a day, you”ll get frustrated pretty quickly. So try to break up big items into smaller ones. For example, if you want to prepare for your move, don’t write “move” on the list. Instead, you can break the mammoth project down into small steps: contact a moving company, get moving boxes, arrange disposal of your bulky waste, post a request for a new tenant, etc.

Important: Don’t get too detailed. If you do, your to-do list could become endless. That too will lead to more frustration than motivation in the end. Mini-tasks clog up your list unnecessarily. Get into the habit of completing everything that take less than five minutes immediately and not even writing them down.

Don’t use your to-do list as a calendar

Appointments have no place in your to-do list. They’ll only make the document confusing. Of course, you can write down your daily to-do list in your planner, but you shouldn’t mix both formats. It’s best to take a look at your schedule before writing down your tasks. Then you know how much time you have effectively available and how many tasks are actually realistic.

Summary

  • To-do lists are an important tool for increased productivity and structure in everyday life.
  • With to-do lists, you can clearly visualize tasks, map priorities, and record successes.
  • Their biggest advantages: They relieve your memory and activate your brain’s reward system.
  • It’s important that they’re not overloaded and are prioritized.
  • Ideally, they should be written in the evening for the following day or before the beginning of the week for the next seven days.
  • Checking off the list should be realistic: Tasks are as small as possible, but should take longer than just five minutes each.
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