18 Tips: How To Make A To-Do List That Actually Gets Done
Tips For Making An Effective To Do List
Listen, you've got too many goals to chase and events to attend to be making to do lists that you'll never do.
Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies for how to make a to do list that you can use to get more out of your messy lists. And as a token busy girl who's frequently stressy and messy, I've collected a lot of them to share.
Spend less time staring at a daunting to do list and more time getting it done with these 18 quick tips. You're one effective to do list away from unlocking new levels of productivity!
1. Start Your To Do List On A Fresh Page
Have an old to-do list from yesterday or last week? It's probably best to toss it and start over.
When it comes to the psychology of to do lists, seeing items crossed off certainly is a good feeling. But there's no denying that a cluttered to-do list is more overwhelming than a fresh one.
It might even remind you of what you didn't get done yet. Which is some negativity that you simply don't need! Throw it away!
2. Before You Toss Your Old To Do List...
Pro tip: Go through your old to do list and cross off things you've done if you haven't already, and draw an arrow --> next to the tasks you need to do still.
The arrow signifies that you need to move it to your new to do list. It's simple, but a nice way to organize a to do list so you can visually see what's what.
I like to do this at the end of the day, when I know I'm not getting any more done. It feels less like I'm leaving things incomplete, and more like I'm pivoting the plan.
The next morning, write out your to do list starting with those leftovers from the day before.
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3. Add Some Miniscule Things To Your List
This effective to do list format tip is a hill I will die on. I absolutely LOVE putting things on my to do list that really don't need to be there. (Sounds silly, I know.)
There's two ways to do this:
Put things on your to do list that you're going to do anyways. For example, things like wake up, brush teeth, comb hair.
Put things on your to do list that you might do, but might not. For example, make bed, make my favorite smoothie, drink a coffee and stare at the window. They're not exactly obvious tasks like brushing teeth, but still things you probably didn't need to write down.
Why? Crossing items off a list subconsciously triggers your brain that you're getting stuff done and making progress. It gets the flow going and you'll be like "okay, time to tackle the next item! 👏)
Obviously, there's a fine line between using this effective to do list technique and actually getting nothing done because you're crossing off meaningless tasks. But just be mindful that your to-do list also has actual work tasks (or whatever it is you need to do) on it and you'll be fine.
4. The "Before 9AM To Do List"
But there's a reason I post about it all the time - it works so so well. It doesn't have to be 9 AM; and mine certainly isn't always. (Before 11AM to do lists are more typical on the weekends). Whatever makes sense for your schedule.
It's more about the to do list psychology behind it. It has a very definitive end point so it's not something to be dragged out.
Plus, you don't have to finish it by then. There's no to-do list police who's going to come bust you if you don't. But putting a time limit on it helps motivate you to get it done for sure.
Here's my 3 step formula for making a before 9AM to do list to give you some daily to do list examples:
The Stupid List: A few things that I'm going to do regardless (see tip 3).
The Dealing With Life Category: Things you don't have to do, but make life better. Examples are stretching, a long skincare routine, clean your desk. Whatever you have time for that spices up your life.
The Get Ish Done Category: These are things that help you get ahead, so when you actually start your day, you're like "WOW I already got that done, I'm amazing!" Things like reviewing your schedule, checking your email, filming/editing a video you haven't had time to yet. Anything that sets you up to get your actual to-do list done.
I loveeee using these to do list categories to write out my "Before 9AM" list.
5. Put Action Items on Your To Do List
Yes, "take over the world" might be part of your ultimate plan, but writing that on your to do list isn't really helpful.
Like, what does that actually entail? Get specific to make your to do list as actionable as possible. This is a weak example depending on your inbox, but helps illustrate the point:
Which is more productive on a to do list?
answer brand collaboration email from Kaitlyn
draft pitch email to X
clean out inbox clutter from retail stores
review X email thread from last week and pull out tasks
There will be times you use the first option, for sure. But making it actionable (aka using a verb) and specific can make it easier to focus up, leaving you with a to do list that actually works.
6. Use Different Time Frames Of To Do Lists
Sometimes a to do list means your tasks scribbled on the back of an overdue bill statement that you pulled out of your recycle bin.
Other times a to do list is for a longer period of time, something that you'll resort back to as days go on. Embrace both of these styles - don't limit yourself to one or the other.
Have daily to do lists, weekly to do lists, monthly...whatever makes sense for you.
Having these different styles actually can keep you more organized and motivated. Generally the greater the time frame of the list, the more big picture it is. Break down your month into weeks and your weeks into days to prevent being overwhelmed by a giant list.
Sometime staring down a month without smaller plans embedded into it can be so daunting you paralyze and get nothing done. Bigger to do lists (like monthly) can then be broken down into weeks or days as you see fit.
6. Use Deadlines
Again with the specifics, I know. But whether it's a monthly, weekly, or daily to do list...having deadlines can really help you stay on track.
Yes, even when it's a soft deadline or it's something you made up, just having one can help. Otherwise you may just keep putting it off. Which could prevent you from moving down your list or just overall reaching your goals.
Plus, it keeps you organized!
7. Batching Tasks
I took this tip straight from Content Creator 101. Those that work in content and social media know that filming new content every single day isn't always sustainable.
Instead, what creators will do is "batch content days" where they have a few outfits picked out and a list of topics and do it all at once. It cuts out having to take multiple of the same steps on back to back days (don't have to find good lighting every time, do makeup, etc.) Instead, they can set up once, schedule a bunch of posts in a single sitting, or do whatever in one setting instead of every day.
Batching tasks saves both physical time and your mental capacity.
Use this concept with your daily to dos! If you're taking time from each day to do something very similar, why not try batching them all onto one day? Every time we move from one task to another we kind of have to recalibrate, so this takes some of that time away.
8. Try Using The To-Do List Brain Dump Strategy
Things get messy up there. 🧠 It's not our fault - we're only human. That's why a little (or big) brain dump is one of the most effective to do list techniques.
Do a huge brain dump at the start of the week (or day if it's one of those days) with EVERYTHING you can think of that you want to do. No matter how out of reach it seems.
Not only does this clear out your over-packed and over-stimulated brain, it helps you organize your week.
Cross off things that don't even make sense, if there's any of those.
Delegate tasks to your team (or partner) that can be delegated.
Organize tasks onto specific days based on priority (deadlines, external factors matching up, etc). Consolidate multiple tasks that are basically the same thing or can be done together into one.
And then if something really isn't going to happen that day/week based on the schedule you've now written out...add it to a day next month.
Extra tip: when I do brain dumps, I love to use to do list categories. I'll start the brain dump by writing a column for "fitness," "work," "content creation," "around the house/cleaning," etc.
It just keeps things more organized, even though a brain dump is meant to get a little messy.
9. Block Time For To Do Lists
You've written your to do list. You've eaten breakfast. You're ready to get started.
Then you glance down at your list and it's as long as a grocery store receipt. How on earth are you going to get all that done in 8 hours??
Instead of panicking about that, try blocking time. Say I'm going to work on these items for 1 hour - set a timer if you need to - and then take a 10 minute break.
Mentally, this is so much easier and will almost always increase your productivity. Sitting down with an unlimited time to work nearly guarantees your thoughts wandering to something else you could be doing.
10. Break Up Tasks With Something Enjoyable
When you've blocked time for your to do list, what you do on the breaks matter. Use this as a time to get the blood moving, look at something that makes you laugh, or grab a bite to eat.
Especially if you're sitting at a desk getting all of your work done. Here's a few things you can do depending on how long of a break you've schedule in:
a neck/back stretching routine to fight desk-pain
go on a walk
grab lunch and don't work while you eat
make a tasty snack
check your phone/socials
refill your water
cuddle your pet
have a quick conversation with your friend
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11. Discover New Mediums
Are you using your iPhone notes app for to do lists? Maybe that was effective when it needed to be, and that's great.
But if it's just not really making your to do list flow anymore, ditch it. Maybe you can learn how to make a to do list in OneNote or with Excel.
There are so many ways to do to do lists that you can try throughout your life! Here's some more ideas:
good old pen and paper
bound planners/notebooks with dates
bound planners/notebooks that are undated
Notion templates and other productivity tools such as Asana
To Do List Phone Apps
Your phone Notes App
Digital planners (such as on the iPad)
Your to do list needs to be something that works for you! The medium that's best for someone else might not be what's best for you. PS: Another way to customize your daily planner is with a motivational planner dashboard.
12. Keep To Do Lists What They Need To Be
If you're overwhelmed by tasks or your to do list just doesn't seem to make sense, try putting different things in different places.
For example, I got an aesthetic dry erase board for more fridge to use as a grocery list/meal planner. That was game changing for me because it's in a place that makes sense so it's easily accessible at the times I need it.
I no longer have to jot down groceries or meal ideas as an after though on a to do list that has work tasks on it.
13. Write A "Done" To Do List
This sounds backwards, but hear the idea out. Sometimes we get so busy or overwhelmed that we don't realize how much we've actually gotten done.
More psychology of to do lists stuff, of course.
We get so caught up on the 2 things we "really wanted to get done this week" that we completely disregard the 15 other things we did do. But there no need to mark the whole week as unsuccessful just because one important thing didn't happen!
Keep a done to do list through the week just as a motivational reminder that you're crushing it! It also helps you know what you've gotten done too. I filter all of the to do items in my Notion board to a "done" page so I can check it if I forget.
14. Put Reoccurring Items On Your To Do List
To do lists don't have to be for just one offs. Keep track of things you have to do periodically using to do lists too. When you have a million things going on, even routine items might slip through the cracks. You could also do this with a habit tracker.
Since that can be pretty bad, having them on one of your to do lists is a nice safety net.
Maybe at the start of the month you add "grocery shopping" to each Sunday because that's when you'll be able to do that task. This is also good for household chores, check-ins, or other routine items.
15. Limit Your Daily To Do List
We're all guilty of slipping another item onto our to do list as the day goes on. But, doing this only makes the list longer and more overwhelming.
This behavior is another thing that can make you feel like there's no finish line - that you're never getting anything done.
One tip to prevent this is to draw a line under or a block around a completed to do list. That way anything you do try to add to it will look like exactly what it is: an addition.
Of course sometimes a new priority will come up, but for things that aren't a priority compared to the other things you have on there already, this just gets in the way of your productive day.
16. Set A Timer
It's one thing to plan to have stuff done by the end of the day. But it's an entirely different structure when you set a timer and use it as a time limit for getting some stuff done.
A big part of this is actually sticking to the timer. It can be tempting to just work through the buzzer if you're feeling good.
The consequences of doing that are that later on you might get burnt out. Instead, stay true to your schedule. I love doing 30 minutes on and 5 min break. Once I get through 4-5 sets, I take a longer break.
Such short time increments may sound dumb, but I've had some of my most productive days with this structure. You can pick any time increment that is manageable for you!
17. Avoid Overbooking
Let's be honest.
The top effective to do list techniques and coveted productivity hacks won't help you if your list is simply unrealistic. There are only so many hours in the day.
And even less of them that you'll actually be focused during. 😜
Be intentional with your to do lists and how much time you have in a week or a day. Not all weeks will look the same, and not all seasons of our lives are the same. Learn yourself. Learn your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to productivity.
You can also add an item or two to the end of your to do list when everything else is complete. (Or take the rest of the day off, we won't judge you.)
But you can't finish a list that's too long and that could end up throwing off your plans if you've committed to things that you won't be ready for.
18. Write Your List By Priority
This is another reason that a brain dump can be helpful. Once you get everything out there, you can see the bigger picture and pull out what actually needs to be done first.
The "eat the frog" method is recommended by many productivity experts, and says to do the least enjoyable thing on your list first. Then the worst is out of the way!
So put items at the top that are either due very soon or are just kinda...bleh. Whether it's your work to do list or just life tasks, prioritizing is a simple but effective way to get more done.
Feeling Like You Know How To Make A To Do List?
Hopefully so! Try a few of these to do list tips over the next couple of weeks and see if they help. Whether you've been in a productive rut or not, there's something here for everyone to give a try.