How to Make Your To-do Lists Effective


Our brains are wired to categorise and organise the things you need to get done and a to-do list is one way of doing this. If like most you do create a to-do list, are you like most and behind on it?

How do you make sure that you actually action what’s on the list? Here are 4 ways you can make your To-do list and hence your work more effective.

Let’s look at what the obvious problem is with a to-do list. The obvious problem is that the list for the day is rarely completed. There are tasks that aren’t actioned and which therefore get pushed onto the next day, which impacts that day and so on.

At some point this snowball effect needs to stop and so either a new list is written and tasks moved around or taken out or, because these tasks need doing, stress increases and extra hours are worked.

Part of the problem is that the list isn’t really helping you work effectively.

1. Prioritise

The first challenge is to figure out in what order to implement the tasks on the list. Re-order the list so that the most important tasks are done at the best time of day for you. Most of us do our best work in the morning. I am at my most creative in the morning and so my content work (blog posts, articles, presentations and so on) is done then and any administrative tasks are carried out at the end of the day.

Notice I’m not saying you should carry out your most important work first but that you should do it when it best works for you. If I have a task that must be done that day I won’t necessarily do it first. If it’s more mechanical and doesn’t require a great deal of thought, I’ll schedule it for sometime in the afternoon.

2. Allocate time for the task

One reason for a to-do list not being completed is that there are simply too many tasks on it. It’s easy to write a list for the day but if you don’t have a rough idea how long that task will take then you’re very likely to create a list that is longer than you’re able to get through.

Just as you schedule and estimate how long a meeting will take, do the same for the tasks on your to-do list. Allocate how much time each task will take and, having prioritised it, what time you expect to carry out that task.

Make sure you put gaps between the tasks. You should take a few minutes break in between tasks that take an hour or more to carry out. More than an hour and you should extend the task to include a few minutes break after around 50 minutes.

Of course, the timed list won’t guarantee that it’ll be completed – things can happen in a business that you may need to respond to – but by allocating time to the tasks you will have a much more accurate idea of what you’re able to accomplish in the day. Your list becomes much more realistic.

3. Filter

By allocating what is a finite amount of time at your disposal you will be able to better filter out those tasks that aren’t essential and which need to be re-scheduled or better still that could be delegated or outsourced.

4. Focus

We are surrounded by distractions. From emails, social media, messages on our phone and other people needing our attention. We are wired to respond to distractions (our brain rewards us with dopamine when we do) because in the distant past the distraction might have been the approach of something big and hungry and decidedly harmful to your health.

A scheduled to-do list that gives a start time and a certain amount of allocated time will help you focus on the task and eliminate these distractions. Remember when you sat exams? You had a limited amount of time which passed in a flash (even those seemingly huge 3-hour sessions) because all of your focus and attention was on getting through the questions in time.

If I have a task that is going to take longer than an hour I’ll set my phone’s stopwatch to 50 minutes. Doing that focuses my attention to the task and before I know it the 50 minutes alarm sounds. I take a few minutes break and then reset the stopwatch and focus for another 50 minutes or until the task is complete if sooner. It’s amazing how much more you can get done by doing this.

So, to re-cap…

  • Prioritise your to-do list according to how you work best;
  • Allocate time for getting the work done to make your list more accurate and realistic;
  • Filter out the less important work that won’t fit into the hours for the day and re-schedule or delegate or outsource it;
  • Use the scheduled tasks to help you stay focused and not distracted.

If you would like to know more about why our brains are wired to be distracted and how to overcome that natural bias, maintain focus and be productive, then read my article, Why it is So Hard to Get Things Done and 7 Tips to Help You. This article resides in my library of free resource.


Photo credit: By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons