Be more effective by making better to-do lists

It seems the socially correct answer to the question “How are you?” is no longer “Good,” but “Busy.”

Maybe it’s all the technology that keeps us plugged in 24/7, or the never-ending flow of information from social media, websites and blogs, or the added work load on employees left at downsized companies. Whatever the cause, I frequently have conversations with people who feel they are running as hard as they can and they still can’t make headway on their to-do lists.

Today’s post is not about how to do more things on your to-do list as much as about doing the right things on your to-do list.

I think the single most important step is having a filter for what makes it to your to-do list in the first place.

For me, that starts with having a clear vision of my goals and my priorities.

Think of a successful, popular company like Apple. They could probably sell just about anything remotely techie and Apple fans would buy it. But if they say yes to every possible product they could make, they dilute their resources and attention from the innovative products they really want to make.

But you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to find it helpful to knowing what your priorities are. I find it easier to say no to things that don’t fit so I have time for what matters most.

Once something does make it to my list, I still like the ABC-123 system I learned when it seemed everyone lugged a Franklin planner around to meetings in the 1990s. First you make your list, then you decide whether an item is A, B or C priority, and then rank the As from most to least important, the Bs and the Cs. I find this exercise helps me avoid the temptation of picking off less important items because I’m procrastinating the harder, more important work.

But like most people, I still find myself moving some items from one day’s list to the next over and over again, or feeling like my day flew by without making the progress I would have liked.

So here are two recent items that have inspired me to take another look at my to-do lists:

Six Clever Tricks for a Better To-Do List

This article on the Business Insider offered good pointers on making better lists to help you get more done, including:

#1: Write Action Items

A really effective to-do list uses action items. That means starting each task with a verb, and being specific about what you’re going to do.

#2: Break Big Projects into Smaller Tasks

Sometimes, a vague item is a big project that needs breaking into smaller tasks. “Write report” often isn’t something you can easily get your head around – but “get data for section 1 of report” is.

#3: Put Timings Against Each Task

Perhaps you write a to-do list every day, but you rarely get through more than a few items on it. Unless you have at least a rough idea of how long your different tasks will take, you won’t know how many you can accomplish in a day.

#4: Split Your List into Different Categories

If your list is a mess, it’s also far too easy to end up prioritizing the little tasks over big ones: you want to clear out as many to-dos as possible, regardless of how big or small they might be.

#5: Batch Together Similar Tasks

If you’ve got a bunch of similar tasks, try to do them in batches, rather than one at a time. For instance, if you need to make ten phone calls this week, it’ll be most efficient to do them all at once – say, on Tuesday morning – rather than doing two each day.

#6: Prioritize Your To-Do List

One powerful way to prioritize is by using your best time of the day for your highest-energy tasks. That way, you’ll get the important things done while your brain is in gear, and you can deal with chores or admin when you’re not feeling quite so energized. Your peak time might be morning, afternoon, or night.

This is a very abridged version of the original — I recommend you put it on your to-do list to read the full piece.

The second item came via Chris Brogan’s Human Business Works email newsletter — a missive with the subject line, “What Do You Reach For When You’re Bored?”

This one isn’t posted online, you have to be a newsletter subscriber to get the content, so I’ll describe briefly Chris saying it’s so easy to fritter away time on Facebook, Twitter, email and all the other rivers of content that your only hope for getting the right things done is a really good to-do list that you commit to honoring.

Then he gives this impassioned call to action:


If you’re ever to learn to love the grind, you’ve got to learn the habit of lists. No matter your role, a list will help you through it. Yes, I’ve read The Checklist Manifesto. (I’ll save the emails about that.) Lists are what separate those who are working near the peak of their potential and those people who are “doing stuff.” Every day that I don’t work with a list is a day I fail to accomplish all that I’m capable of conquering in the time allotted (I’ve never spelled that right the first time).

But wow, do we all tend to do lists poorly. We have a few habits about lists. See if this is you:

  • your list has items on it from months ago that you haven’t finished, or even started.
  • your list has items on it that you probably won’t start any time soon.
  • your list is frenetic and not centered around your goals.
  • your list has 100 or so items on it.

I know because lots of people use these lists. I have in the past. So has pretty much everyone.

Let’s make three lists:

  1. Someday
  2. The Bigger Story
  3. Now

I love this way of thinking about my to-do list. The “someday” list is a helpful parking lot for ideas I like but that might not fit with my priorities right now, or maybe they even fit but I just don’t have the time or resources yet. The bigger story is about knowing what your vision is. Now means breaking the bigger story down into actionable chunks and getting them done.

I think I’ll be combining these two sets of advice to supercharge my to-do lists — using my vision statement as my bigger story, then creating a now list with action verbs, prioritized, batched, categorized, and with a realistic estimate of what I can get done in a day.

Remaking my to-do list sounds like a great to-do to start the week.


Categories: career, lifestyle

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies


  1. Like, No Weigh! « Kindergarten Crush
  2. Do you plan your life with the same diligence as a work project? « Newvine Growing

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