Get More Done : Strategies for an Effective To-Do List

The term ‘To-Do List’ evokes different images for different people. For some it is that of a never-ending-ever-growing scroll of magic paper that gives them nightmares. For others it might come across as something only the boring folks, who schedule even their loo breaks, do. And then there is another bunch who considers it to be their life saviour which keeps them sane through the madness of their daily chores and tasks. 

Whatever be the image that you have conjured up, a fact that one cannot deny is that an effective to-do list is one of the simplest yet powerful productivity tools that can work wonders in increasing your overall productivity. 

Though it is one of the best and most efficient productivity techniques around, the success of it depends on how effectively it is being used. Moreover, if not used in the correct way, it can do more harm than good. 

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So, let’s now see some of the strategies to help you kick-start your art-of-making-the-perfect-list journey 

Pick a suitable medium

Choosing a medium that you are comfortable with is the first and foremost thing to be considered while making a list. It may differ according to the personal preferences of people. It doesn’t matter whether you choose an app or the good old pen and paper, what is important is to stick to the one that you have chosen.Having your tasks scattered across different mediums makes managing and tracking the tasks difficult.

Dump all those tasks eating up your brain to the list

Transfer all those ideas, goals and tasks to the medium that you have chosen. Don’t bother assessing its value or prioritising it (yet). For now, just dig out every single thing from your brain and dump it onto your list.

Identify the ones which align with your purpose

It’s important that you need to have a clear idea about what you want to accomplish in life and accordingly pick tasks that’ll help you realise your goals. Write down clearly why you need to do the task and how it adds value to your life. Identifying your whys gives the brain the much needed motivation and energy to tackle the task.

Break the list into multiple lists

So now you have a big list of all the items that aligns with your long-term goals listed right in front of you. This list will contain all your goals listed out together. Let’s now split them into separate lists . Three basic lists that you can use are : 

  • The Master List , where you keep a list of your long term goals .For eg: Write a novel. Here, you could categorise the goals as personal, professional, finance, health etc. 
  • The Weekly List contains all those items that need to be ticked off by the end of the week. This would essentially contain tasks which would help in achieving your long term goals, plus other things that need your attention during the week. 
  • High Impact List is the one that contains the tasks which are of the highest priority and needs your immediate attention. These might or might not be related to the other two lists. 

Apart from these you could also keep a separate list for the daily activities that you need to track. For eg : If Doing exercise is something that you want to track on a daily basis, then instead of adding this item to your high impact list, add it to a separate list which is meant solely for daily activities. 

You can come up with as many lists as you want. But I would suggest not to overdo it (then you might end up having to come up with another list to track the list of lists ! ). 

List down tasks, not goals on your list

Your master list is the one where you have all the goals listed and when it comes to creating weekly lists, you need to make sure that you break your goals down into actionable items and put those on the list. In this way, you get clarity on how to go about with achieving the long term goals. Make it as specific as possible.


From the weekly list, identify the items that are of the highest priority and move them to the High Impact List. This is the list that you need to follow to keep track of the items that need to be completed by the end of the day. Sit with your list and identify the ones that are urgent and important and rank them accordingly. Setting priorities makes sure that you don’t end up cleaning your kitchen drawer when you have an important assignment due for the day.

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The shorter the better

One of the mistakes people make while creating a list is to cram up the list with as many items as they can think of. By doing so chances are high that you may end up not finishing most of the tasks on your list. And, there is nothing more depressing than staring at a long list of pending tasks at the end of the day. So keep it short. There is no hard and fast rule as to the maximum number of items that you can put on your list. Start with as low as three and experiment and find out the number that works for you. 

Set a time limit for each task and measure the time taken

Each person has a different pace at which he works. To find out yours, roughly estimate the time you think you would need to complete a task and once you are done with the task, compare it with the actual time taken. This way, you will have a realistic idea about how many tasks you can complete in a day and can accordingly decide the length of your list. 

Break bigger tasks into a set of smaller tasks

While you time your tasks, you might come across some tasks which need more time.Say for example, writing a blog post might not fit into the two hour window that has been allotted to it. In such cases, break the task down into a number of smaller tasks – research the topic, write, edit, select pictures etc. By breaking it down, you will have a clear step-by-step strategy listed right in front of you.Also, instead of waiting to check off that one big monstrous item, you can now check off 3-4 small items. That’s a pleasure in itself, isn’t it ?

Create a May-Be-Later-If-I-Feel-Like list

This is one of my personal favourites. All those items that you want to do but which are neither urgent nor important go on this list. Say for eg: learn to knit, may be something you might want to do but definitely not when you have a project release coming up the following week. 

Always expect the unexpected

As much as we all want everything to go as planned, in reality that’s not always possible. At times, unexpected events may pop up. So, it’s always a good idea to leave a bit of cushion time between your tasks. Not just that it leaves you with some wiggle room in case of emergencies but also provides you that much needed breather from the tasks on normal days.

Block time for yourself

Always always always make sure to take some time out of your schedule to relax. Burnout is real ! So it’s really important that you find time to pause, breathe and relax. Adding break time to your list is essential to help the brain maintain its focus and energy levels. 

Revisit and Re-evaluate your list periodically

Constant evaluations and reevaluations are needed for this productivity tool to work effectively. At the end of each day set aside some time to sit with your list and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Move those items which you feel are of low priority to your may-be list. Re-prioritise the list, play around with it and you will eventually figure out a strategy that works best for you. It’s all about experimenting, buddy !

 Make the list the day before

Though it is not a rule that you should make the list on the previous day, it is always better if you can do so. At the end of each day, after you evaluate your list for that day, you would already be in a state of mind where it is easier for you to figure out what items need to go on the list for the next day. Also, if you have a list of tasks ready right in front of you in the morning, you know exactly what’s on your plate for the day and hence you can use your morning energy on productive stuff rather than wasting it on planning your day.

Create a Done List

Even if you hate every other list mentioned above, this is one list that you are gonna love. It is a list of all the tasks that you have accomplished. Once you complete a task, along with crossing it off from the main list, add it to your Done List. That’s double the euphoria, you see ! This list is a reminder to yourself of how close you have come to your end goal and is an instant mood booster on days you feel low. Also, do not forget to celebrate even the smallest of your milestones.

Bottom line

Learning to make an effective to do list is not something that you can master overnight. It takes a lot of experimenting to figure out the strategies that work for you. There are no hard and fast rules here. Remember not to obsess too much with the idea of making that perfect list in the first go. Have patience and keep experimenting until you figure out a strategy that best suits your needs. Good Luck !