How to Write Productive To-Do Lists

Writing to-do lists is a helpful way to remind yourself of everything you have to do that day, from tasks at work, to picking up groceries on the way home. But their effectiveness depends on how you write them.

There’s no use in writing a to-do list if you don’t actually check off any of the items you need to get done. It’s easy to overestimate what you can accomplish and to write down every little errand and thing you should do, instead of focusing on priorities.  

So instead of marking down endless items on a list and feeling like you’re not actually getting anywhere, try one of these to-do list techniques.

1. Bullet Journaling

Bullet journaling is a to-do list system that allows you to divide the organize the types of tasks you write down, plan reminders ahead of time, keep track of events and ideas, and figure out which tasks you should abandon altogether.

Each item that you write down is identified with a different bullet. For example, an actionable item (eg. pick up dry cleaning) is identified with a simple dotted bullet (•), and events (eg. dad’s birthday party) are marked with an “o” bullet (◦). Extra symbols help further categorize list items – an asterisk next to an item means that it’s a priority to-do.

The bullet journal system is customizable – create additional indexes and organizers to help you plan out your weeks and months ahead of time, and make up your your own symbols and bullets that you like. It’s a detailed journaling system that takes some getting used to, but it’s a highly efficient way of logging everyday tasks, events, and ideas.

2. Focus on smaller, actionable tasks

Avoid writing down broad, vague tasks – break everything down into more actionable items. For example, instead of marking down “Write a new blog post,” you could write “Finish outline of new blog post.” And when the outline is done, the next task could be “Write blog introduction,” and so forth until the blog post is done.

It’s less intimidating and easier to get started when you see smaller tasks instead of giant projects. And you’ll be less inclined to procrastinate if you have a list of actionable items that are easier to tackle.

3. Organize by importance and urgency

Not all tasks that you have to do are equal in importance, so organize by what is the most urgent and what can wait. Try Steven Covey’s Priority Matrix concept, and divide your to-do list into 4 quadrants:

Priority Matrix Edit

This helps you better visualize and prioritize everything you need to do. Start with the urgent and important tasks and work your way down. Do the not important, not urgent tasks if you have the time, but you know that the other quadrants have more priority.

4. Identify your most important tasks

Identify the 2 or 3 most important tasks on your list and focus on getting those done first. Everything else on the list is secondary – it would be nice to get to, but don’t stress if there’s no time. They serve more as reminders of unimportant things you’ll have to get done eventually.

If you want to streamline your list, you could even erase everything else that you didn’t mark as important. If you have a couple of tasks that are priority, you shouldn’t do anything else until they’re done, so why bother having them on your list in the first place?

5. The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of results come from 20% of causes. This distribution occurs in all sorts of aspects of life and business, and you can also apply it to your to-do lists.

Identify which of your tasks require the least amount of effort but yield the most results. Assign each task the following ratings:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how much effort does this take?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how impactful is it to get it done?
  • On a scale of 1-5, what is the priority?

Start with the list items that require minimal effort, but yield the most positive results. This ensures that you’re putting out the least amount of effort to get the most important stuff done. It’s working smartly and productively.

To do lists or not to do lists?

Writing down everything you need to get done can help you remember and plan your days, but only if you’re strategic in the way you write your to-do lists. Don’t bombard yourself with every little detail – figure out which to-do list technique makes you the most productive.

How do you write your to-do lists? Share in the comments!

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