The Essential Guide to Writing a To-Do List That ACTUALLY Works

A bad To-do list, ironically titled "Super Great"

(Don’t make another to-do list until you’ve read this guide!)

It happened again, huh?

You spent all your day apparently working on something, but now that you think about it, you didn’t actually accomplish a single thing.

Yesterday, you said “tomorrow”, but today, or yesterday’s tomorrow, you’ve done the exact opposite of what you said you would do.

You woke up ready to rock the day, only to realize “one hour” later that it is indeed already evening, and you have wasted another day.

The worst part?

This didn’t happen only today or yesterday. No.

You’ve been following this same script the day before yesterday, and the day before, and the month before, and the year before, and you will likely do the same again… tomorrow. 

However, there is a way to save yourself: make a to-do list. 

Now, it’s highly probable that you already use to-do lists, or maybe you tried them in the past, but in the end ditched them because you found that they didn’t work at all.

Well, you were wrong.

To-do lists are actually incredibly useful and can make your life much better and less stressful. 

That is, if you know how to do it.

Because let’s face it, most people don’t stop using to-do lists because these are useless, but more because they don’t know how to get the most out of them.

How to Write a To-Do List You WILL Stick To

The actual act of writing on a to-do list all the tasks you need to complete is, of course, easy.

But like all things, there’s a wrong and a correct way of writing a to-do list, as well.

There are actually some pretty common mistakes that cause people to quit, thinking that this tool doesn’t work. 

How do you make an effective to-do list, then? 

Let’s find out.

1. Paper or Apps?

Pen and paper or smartphone and computer for writing to-do list

You can write to-do lists pretty much everywhere: on a piece of paper, on apps for smartphone or desktop, on a whiteboard, on the fridge… wherever you want.

They all have their pros and cons.

Writing by hand apparently helps you remember things better, but apps and software allow you to personalize your list more easily.

What I personally do is: I write my to-do list in my journal (I’ve found that writing on paper allows me to focus and think more clearly) and then I transfer (transcribe) everything on Evernote, so I can access my list both from smartphone and desktop.

But you can choose whichever medium you prefer, really. The important thing is to actually write your to-do list.

2. Don’t Rush It

Person using smartwatch and deciding to write a to-do list

Common To-do List Mistake #1: Not dedicating enough time to it.

Writing a to-do list is absolutely not a task of secondary importance.

If you only spend 5 minutes planning your day, you are setting yourself up for failure. 

The lack of time dedicated to the creation of your list will directly influence (negatively) how much you accomplish during the day.

You should give yourself at least 15, or even better, 30 minutes to decide and choose all the tasks you need to put on your list.

There’s not a “perfect” time for it, though it’s preferable that you do it in the early morning, or at night before sleep.

I suggest you write your to-do list 1 hour or 30 minutes before going to bed, for two reasons:

  1. You will have a better recalling of what you did well and what you didn’t do well during the day, so you can plan the next “tomorrow” better.
  2. You will sleep better. By writing down the things you want or have to do tomorrow, you will clear your mind and fall asleep faster and better.

3. Follow the Matrix

I bet at least someone has recommended you to start with a “brain dump” when making a to-do list.

They told you to write down EVERYTHING. “It doesn’t matter what it is, just write it down, for now,” they said.

It’s actually good advice, but the problem is that many people stop here. They write too many things on their list, get overwhelmed, and lose all their energy and motivation to even start working.

You don’t want that, and that’s why you should use the Matrix, which is a time management tool based on the Eisenhower Matrix and popularized by Stephen Covey in his best-seller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Here’s how it works and how to use it for your to-do list.

4 Quadrants (Focus on No. 2)

Stephen Covey's time management matrix based on Eisenhower's box

There are four categories of activities:

  1. Important and urgent. You should do these first.
  2. Important but not urgent. Try to always focus on these, unless of course there are incomplete Q1 activities.
  3. Not important but urgent. Most of these are not even actually urgent. It’s best to delegate them to someone else. At least, work on these only after Q1 and Q2.
  4. Not important and not urgent. Stay the hell away from these.

Now take your list containing every activity you think you will have to do, want to do, or might end up doing.

Look at every item and ask yourself, “In which quadrant does this go?”.

The goal of this exercise is mainly to make you understand that there’s a difference between important and urgent. Too many people use these two terms as synonyms. This is why they make the following:

Common To-do List Mistake #2: Not sorting the activities by priority.

After you’ve put every activity in their quadrants, it’s time to do some cleaning.

  • Delete immediately every Quadrant 4 activities.
  • Put the rest in order of priority. So Q1 (Urgent-Important) activities first, followed by Q2 (Not Urgent-Important) and Q3 (Urgent-Not Important).

Ideally, you would only focus on Quadrant 2 activities, but that’s not always possible.

However, by consistently using the Matrix, in combination with an effective to-do list, you will start to have less and less Q1 and Q3 activities, because you will have done such a good job at planning, scheduling, and completing everything in Q2 that you won’t have many things that go out of control and go from Not Urgent to Urgent.

4. Put More Details

Common To-do List Mistake #3: Writing things that are too vague. 

Every task on your list must be specific, which means that your to-dos need to be actionable and “completable” by you, the one who wrote them down.

Not just that, you also need to be extremely detailed and write anything related to that specific activity, like when, how much time, where, with whom, etc.

Example: “Study” is not specific enough. “Study Maths” is already better.
Now add some details: “Study Maths at home in my room (where) for 3 hours (how much time), starting at 4 pm (when), with my friend Dwayne Johnson (with whom).”

(To help you better estimate how much time to dedicate to each activity, you might want to experiment using the pomodoro technique.)

5. Break Down the Giants 

Common To-do List Mistake #4: Not breaking gigantic activities into smaller ones & not making lists smaller.

If there’s one reason why people fail at being productive, that is trying to do too much. They either put in their list too much, or they write down tasks that are too much.

This causes them to get easily demotivated and unwilling to start working. 

Don’t make the same mistake.

You already learned how to use the Matrix to decide which tasks are really important and need to be done.

Now, take a good look at them.

See which ones are too big, break them into smaller tasks, and again write the details for these, as well.

Also, remember not to put too many tasks on your list. Ideally, you should only have 5 to 10 activities, ordered by priority.

Example: “Birthday party for my friend” is everything but a small undertaking. It’s composed of many tasks:

  • Define the budget and plan what to buy
  • Go shopping for food, drinks, balloons, cutlery, etc.
  • Call friends and tell them when and where is the party going to be
  • Think about a good present
  • Buy the present
  • Decide what kind of music should be played at the party
  • Order a birthday cake that will probably be too big
  • Etc.

As you can see, there are quite a lot of sub-tasks, many of which are themselves quite big and take time. 

When planning your day, only choose a few key activities, and leave the rest for another day.

6. Expect the Unexpected

Hand holding gray pencil writing unexpected things that might happen in a day

Common To-do List Mistake #5: Not adding enough flexibility.

I remember that when I started using to-do lists, I used to follow my list too tightly.

I assumed that, if I had plans to do something from 4 pm to 5 pm, I had to do it exactly during that time. If not, I would easily lose motivation, because “it’s already 4:10 pm, I won’t be able to work one hour by 5 pm anymore.” So, like a good procrastinator, I would proceed wasting the remaining 50 minutes.

When writing your to-do list, make sure to add some flexibility, and always take into account transition times between tasks. You won’t be able to complete Task 1 and immediately jump into Task 2 without wasting a single second. 

Also, try to leave out at least one hour from your workday, just in case.

So for example, if you estimate that your daily tasks combined will take 9 hours, try to fit everything into an 8-hour plan. If all goes well, you will have completed everything one hour earlier. If not, you will then use the one extra hour you had already planned. Sure, it would be great if we could always complete our activities exactly as we planned, but that’s not realistic.

The extra time you add will allow you to do two things:

  1. You will be able to go from one task to the other without being “late”.
  2. In case something unexpected happens and makes you waste some time, you would still be able to follow your to-do list as originally planned.

7. Have Fun!

Remote control for Television

Common To-do List Mistake #6: Not scheduling time for fun things to do.

Who said that you should stop watching your favourite TV shows or playing your favourite games, altogether?

This is another bad idea that people form based on the stories of insanely successful and rich people. 

I’m not saying that all these “superstars” actually say that you should give up on having fun, but it’s undeniable that a lot of them say things like: “Before getting to where I am now, I didn’t take a single day off”, or “I worked 16 hours a day”, or “I didn’t go to the cinema, I didn’t go to parties, I was always working when others were having fun.”

Now, I absolutely agree with the idea that, if you really want to become successful, you have to (and should) work your ass off. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on everything else. 

When writing your to-do list, don’t try to turn the entire day into a to-do. Instead, make sure to set some time aside that you will dedicate to doing fun stuff (but only if you have completed at least the most important tasks!).

I believe that true productivity is about doing everything faster and better, so that we have time to spare for activities that relax us and that we enjoy doing, even if they are not directly related to our biggest goals.

If you work hard, you deserve to have some fun. 

But if you spend more time having fun—or worse, wasting time—compared to the time spent being productive… Let’s just say that you don’t exactly deserve time off, although if you really need it, you should just take some.

One more thing. After reading about leaving time for fun stuff, you might have been thinking:

“But Paolo, didn’t you say that we should use the Time Management Matrix and delete all our Quadrant 4 activities?”

Yes I did. And I say it again: delete all Quadrant 4 activities. Now.

This rule, however, is to be followed only when you’re planning your to-do list and you’re deciding which activities are really important and relevant to your goals.

In fact, a few paragraphs above, I stated that you shouldn’t turn the entire day into a to-do. That means that your tasks must not consume all your day.

Always set time aside to relax and do things you enjoy doing. Just make sure to complete at least 1 to 3 really important tasks of that day, first.

Embrace the Magic of “Todolisting”

So many people hate to-do lists, saying that these don’t work, when the truth is that they either do it the wrong way, or don’t practice enough.

Yes, practice, because writing a to-do list can very well be considered a skill. The more you practice, the better you get. 

It can take a while to truly master it, but you must not quit just because at first you’re struggling.

Because this productivity tool will seriously make your life better. 

It forces you to become conscious of what is really important, among the myriad of things that every day claim our attention. 

You will become an expert at planning your day. This will allow you to stop forgetting important tasks and avoid work overload, too.

Not just that. Thanks to a well-planned to-do list, you will also beat procrastination and laziness more easily, because you will always feel prepared and know exactly what’s the next thing to do, leaving you with no time to waste pondering about what it is that you should be doing. 

You will be more productive, you will achieve your goals, you will become happier.

Both your personal and professional life will improve.

Now, remember the countless hours you wasted? All that time spent doing unimportant stuff, without taking a single step towards your most important goals? 

Yes? No?

Well, in any case, you will remember those days as a bad dream you used to have a long time ago.

Because once you get good at creating and sticking to your to-do lists, you will never waste a day anymore.

Ok, maybe not “never”, since we can’t know for sure what life has in store for us.

But to be productive, effective, and proud of yourself most of the days? Yes. 

Absolutely YES.

(Hey! Need more tips to help you stick with your to-do list? Read this article!)

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