Tips for Creating an Effective To-Do List

This is a made-up to-do list by me to illustrate the points covered below. Photo credit:  Michael Taiwo

This is a made-up to-do list by me to illustrate the points covered below. Photo credit: Michael Taiwo

People have debated about the value of to-do lists for ages. Do they work? Are they worth the time? Is there really a point in writing it all down if you already know what you need to do in your mind? I say a resounding “YES!” To-do lists are one of the productivity techniques I use on a daily basis. They are a visual reminder of the progress you have made—and the ground still left to cover. They are a reminder of the promises you have made to yourself, and that you intend to keep. To-do lists work.

Tips for Creating an Effective To-Do List

1.       To achieve a big goal, start small.

It is easy to confuse activity with progress. This is why it is crucial that your longer-term and important goals find their way into your daily to-dos. Always ask: what am I doing today to help me achieve my goal? If you plan to publish a book in two years, then we should find evidence of that in your daily to-do list. If we checked your list several days in a row and found no indication of a would-be author, then we could question your commitment to the stated goal.

Although a to-do list is typically focused on what can be achieved in one day, or in a short period of time, it should also point toward a larger goal. For instance, if your goal is to write a test in three months, one item on your list today might be to check out the appropriate books, sites, and other resources needed. This is something that can be achieved in a day. Tomorrow, you can move to another day-size item, e.g., understanding the test structure and relevant rules. If passing the test would be an epic win for you, then items relating to that may be designated as Most Important Tasks. This means they are not just to-doss but must-dos for that day.

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It is easy to confuse activity with progress. This is why it is crucial that your longer-term and important goals find their way into your daily to-dos.

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2.       Tasks should be ambitious but realistic.

Let’s see, how many hours do you have in a day? Sure, we all have 24 hours, but that’s where the commonality ends. Depending on how much you sleep, your commute time, your habits (e.g., the gym, long lunches, etc.), and so on, you may have fewer than 10 hours each day to really work. (I have lumped both your day job and your personal projects together as “work.”) The starting point of being realistic, then, is to set daily targets that can be achieved in, say, six distraction-free hours. In my experience, this is the best that most of us can get on a consistent basis. (If six hours seems too low, try  tracking your distraction-free time in a day. Do this for a week and see what your daily average of “work” time is. You’d be surprised at how much time we waste.)

If your list is unduly long, it will fail to motivate you. Why? Because you are almost starting with a “I know I can’t finish this, so why try” mindset. On the other hand, if you are always completing your list, it may be that it is not ambitious enough. So keep playing with how many tasks, and of what difficulty,  you can pack in a day until you find your sweet spot. Do not work yourself to death. This is not the aim. You should not feel overly stressed from having to complete your list. As with any new habit, it’s a little out of your zone in the beginning, but after a while, it starts to feel natural.

3.       Stick with sticky note.

A to-do list must be seen, often. This is a most important point. There are innumerable productivity apps out there that can help you with a to-do list, but I don’t use them for one main reason: out of sight is out of mind. A to-do list that I have to check on my phone is a much less powerful reminder than the one staring me in the face. I write my list and carry it around all day. I stick them to my computer monitor or to my keyboard and do my dance each time I cross something off. What’s more, other people can see my list as well and ask me how far I’ve gotten, or how much further I have to go. By making my to-do list very visible, I make myself accountable for its accomplishment.

I may be old-school here. I know people who use these gadgets effectively. But I have found that a pen and a sticky note are all I need to articulate what needs to be done today, and to get it done as planned. I sometimes forget to check my phones for hours, but I don’t think I can go that long without looking at my sticky note to remind myself of what next needs to be dealt with. If you are not sold on my pen and paper method, please suggest in the comments section what apps you have found to be useful. I’m sure other readers would appreciate it.

4.       Unfulfilled tasks move to the next day.

If you didn’t get to something today, put it on the list for the next day. Obviously, there are times when this is not possible. If you planned to watch a game live in the stadium and you missed it, you couldn’t catch up on that the next day. But more often than not, activities are such that if you failed to do them one day, they can be done another day. I am bad at calling people the first time they show up on my to-do list. So if I have “Call Jim” on my to-do list on Monday, it may re-appear on Tuesday and Wednesday before I finally get to do it. Herein lies another power of the to-do list, because when even the more undesirable tasks are subtly nagging us to pay attention to them, we eventually do them. Calling people is not one of my strengths (I love when people call me, but for me to pick up that phone…), but when it goes on my to-do list, it is only a matter of time before it gets done.


I am sold on the concept of having a list that helps me achieve my work for the day. I feel more productive and complete more in a day when my list is in front of me. Have you tried it? What are your thoughts about a paper list versus an electronic one?