There could be a better way to write your to-do list

A well-crafted to-do list acts as a guiding light for your day. It helps you overcome feelings of being overwhelmed, and reduces anxiety around whether you’re being productive throughout the day. To-do lists come in all shapes and sizes—it’s all about what works for you as an individual. The below method is one method that might work for you; it’s up to you to decide what to implement into your own planning system.

1. Have a “master” list: This is a list of non-urgent tasks that were not immediately time-sensitive; a “brain dump” in its own notebook.

Once you tackled a task, put an “X” through the bullet and make a little note (in parenthesis) to remind myself when you accomplished it, or where the results can be found. You can use the notebook threading technique described by Kim at Tiny Ray of Sunshine.

Every time you think of something that needs to be done, it gets added to this master list. When you sat down in the evening to craft your to-do list for the next day, reference your brain dump to see what has become a time-sensitive task.

Pull tasks from this list if you have a particularly light load the next day and have time to tackle non-pressing items—ones that would be nice to get done and out of the way.

Some of the methods in this system have evolved. You can still have a master list, but it can be more project-focused than task-focused. Try to add the following to this “master list” to improve it:

2. Have a “top three”: Once you have carefully crafted your to-do list for the following day, look over it and decide which tasks will be your “top three” for the day. Some experts call this a HIT (that’s high-impact tasks) list.

 To determine your top three tasks for the day, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What task(s) will have the most impact on my day?
  • What task(s) needs to get done today?
  • If I get nothing else done today, what task(s) will make me feel the most accomplished?

Once you’ve figured out which tasks are the most important, number them 1, 2, and 3. It’s important to note that you do not necessarily tackle them in that order. You might start with number three because it’s quick and easy. This gets the momentum going in your day and energizes you to tackle the bigger/longer tasks on your list.

 Why does this work? Think of your energy level like the petrol tank in your car. You fill up first thing in the morning, and start driving all around town running errand after errand. Sooner or later, you will run out of gas and not be able to go anywhere else until you refill (go to bed and get some rest).

 You want to hit the important destinations first so that you can make the most of your trip before your petrol tank runs dry. It’s the same with your energy levels.

 Getting those important and time-sensitive tasks out of the way first—while you have a full tank of energy—will free you up to do the smaller, easier tasks later when your energy starts to run low like in the Mid-afternoon slump.

3. Break it down and be specific: To-do’s should be actionable, specific. Tasks such as “work on research paper”—while actionable—are much too vague. Instead, write specific and manageable tasks that you can do in one sitting like “write first paragraph of research paper.”

Breaking larger projects down into more manageable snippets will help you to get more done. Even if each task individually seems tiny and insignificant, when added up over the course of a week or month, they compound in effect.

4. Be intentional with unfinished tasks: Your to-do list probably has a few tasks on it that you’ve been meaning to get to for days, weeks, maybe even years—but just haven’t gotten around to yet. Instead of stressing over these unfinished tasks, try to figure out why they haven’t gotten done.

Is it because the task is too broad/daunting? Try breaking it down into more manageable sub-tasks, and tackle just those little bits each day.

Is it because the task is just not important to you? Take a minute to analyse whether that task still holds value. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with crossing it off the list and relieving the stress of it staring you in the face every single day.

Is it because you just don’t want to do it? Some tasks are just a drag. They may be important, but you keep putting them off because you simply don’t feel like it. If this is the case, consider making that task one of your “top three” for the next day. Just get it over with and save yourself the grief.

5. Plan to plan: Scheduling time to plan out your to-do list is the single most important thing you can do to increase your productivity.

Every night before bed, sit down with your bullet journal and plan out your to-do list for the following day. Analyse what you accomplished that day, move tasks forward, and add in tasks from your master list as needed.

This is akin to setting out your outfit the night before a big morning meeting. You are setting yourself up for success. 

Waking up each morning and already having a clear vision of what you need to accomplish that day is invaluable. It initiates a forward momentum in your day. Rather than scrambling in the morning to figure out what you need to do, you can hit the ground running on your most important tasks right away. 

6. Consider an “if/then” list: This is something to experiment with in your bullet journal. Remember the energy level issues discussed earlier? Well, energy levels can ebb and flow throughout the week.

Some days, you might inexplicably find yourself with an overabundance of energy and get everything on your to-do list accomplished before noon, leaving you with the afternoon free to work ahead.

Other days, you might find yourself drained from the moment you wake up. After slugging through your “top three,” you end up procrastinating the rest of the day away.

Take some of your repetitive daily, weekly, and monthly tasks and categorized them into two lists. The first is your “If I have lots of energy then I will…” list, and the second is your “If I’m feeling sluggish then I will…” list.

The concept here is that no matter how you are feeling each day, you can grab an item from the appropriate list and tackle it that day. This way, you’re being productive and can feel good about your day, no matter what.