How to Write an Effective To-Do List

How to Write an Effective To-Do ListToday I want to address one of the most common productivity hacks in the world: to-do lists.

See, I find to-do lists extremely useful for me. And yet, half of the things on my list never get done. Bleh. Is it even worth it if I have scraps of paper with unchecked stuff happening? I think so.

Is it even worth it if I have scraps of paper with unchecked stuff scattered across my desk? I think so. Let’s take a look at writing productively.

Should I use to-do lists?

I know a lot of people who find lists helpful. And I know just as many who would rather watch paint dry than have a list hanging over them.

The purpose of a to-do list is:

  • to keep you on-task
  • to focus you on important tasks
  • to remind you what comes next
  • to organize your day
  • to show you what needs doing

A to-do list is a record. It’s a reminder of what’s important. It’s not a list of goals; it’s a list of tasks.

You should only use to-do lists if they improve your functionality. Don’t write down a list for the sake of having a list. And don’t make “writing a to-do list” something you check off your to-do list for the sake of feeling productive.

My suggestion is if…

  • a list keeps you on-task
  • you need to break down big projects
  • you struggle with what to do next
  • you have a lot of different things to do
  • you easily forget urgent tasks
  • partially unchecked lists don’t stress you

… you should keep a to-do list.

Types of to-do lists

Not all lists are useful to everyone. My personal to-do system is different than my mother’s, which is different from my teachers’, which is different from my boss’. Maybe you can’t handle sticky notes everywhere, but an app will work for you.

Sticky notes

Write down your list for the day/week on a sticky pad, and stick it where you’ll see it. Simple as it gets, but you may need to compile undone tasks as the week bears on and your work area clutters up with sticky notes.

Phone app

I use “Reminders” pretty regularly. Whenever I forget what I need to do (which is always) I pull it up and decide which task I can work on immediately.


This one is more involved but I sometimes break it out when I have a lot to do. Your tasks fall into one of four categories:

  • Urgent-important
  • Urgent-not important
  • Not urgent-important
  • Not urgent-not important

You can frame it like this. I use the four-box to help me decide which homework assignments I need to work on and which house-keeping tasks I need to do. For example:

  • Urgent-important is the 10-page paper due tomorrow.
  • Urgent-not important is the pile of dishes in the dishwasher.
  • Not urgent-important is the exam next week.
  • Not urgent-not important is the new movie I want to see.

Obviously, I should deal with the 10-page paper first, and then the dishes. I should probably study for my exam before going out to the movies. Probably.

Daily lists

However you write it down, you can have up to three daily lists:

  • Yesterday
  • Today
  • Tomorrow

Update these lists daily to stay ahead.

Weekly lists

This is what I do: list all of the urgent-important things you want to get done in a week and work on it throughout the week. My list for this week looks a little like this:

  • Practice songs to memorize
  • HtW_ article 1/3
  • HtW_ article 2/3
  • HtW_ article 3/3
  • Prep email gift for HtW_
  • Pack for Camp
  • Pack to move after Camp

Most of these are my “big task” of the day for a day. Practicing songs is something I do a little bit of every day until I’ve practiced all of the songs.

Project lists

When I was getting ready to lead a missions trip to Europe, I made a long list of the big-ticket tasks I needed to do.

  • Have a team sign up
  • Talk to missionaries
  • Buy plane/train/boat tickets

Those three tasks took 3 months to complete. As each big-ticket task popped up, I’d break it down into littler tasks.

  • Have a team sign up =
  • Talk to my pastor about leading a missions trip
  • Get an estimated budget for the trip
  • Announce the trip to the congregation
  • Meet with interested peeps
  • Get peeps to commit with a down-payment

Each project has different parameters and important things that need to happen. Heck, even my smaller tasks could be broken down further, but I was getting tired of having sticky notes all over my desk and above my bed.

How to write a to-do list you’ll actually use

The only useful to-do list is the one that actually allows you to get stuff done. Therefore, if you’re going to write up a to-do list, you should write one that fits your needs.

  • What is your goal? Are you trying to organize your tasks for today, for this week, for a single, large spanning project?
  • How many tasks can you handle? Scale your list to the length of time. For one day, you can probably get 3 big tasks done. For one week, 20 is a good round number.
  • Where will you see it? Your phone, a piece of paper, or a sticky note? Keep your list in a place that you will see so that you use it.

Write your list at the beginning and keep track of how you progress through. It’s a small win to check off a task, but it is incredibly satisfying!

What do you think—do you use to-do lists? Where do you keep your lists? How do you structure them to get the most done? Share in the comments!

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