How To Write A To-Do List – Properly!

If you had asked me last year to write a post on how to create a To-Do list, you would have probably been on the receiving end of a sarcastic retort asking if you would also like me to write posts called, “How To Breathe” and “How To Take A Dump”.

Because who the hell can’t write a list of a few things they need to get done on a piece of paper, right?

Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

But then I read a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen, which outlines exactly how to create an effective To-Do list (with the emphasis on effective) and it became clear to me that it is not necessarily so straightforward.

What was also clear was that I was one of those people that hadn’t been writing my To-Do lists properly.

I didn’t let it get me down though, because apparently a lot of us don’t breathe properly and as it turns out, most of us don’t even poop properly either.

So, there’s some information you never thought you needed and probably never thought you’d find on this site. I’m doing my very best to bring you value and variety. 🙂

Anyway, I’m guessing that since you’ve found your way to this blog, you may be wondering if there is, indeed, a right and a wrong way to create a To-Do list.

And the answer is . . . (Drum roll, please.)

Not necessarily.

But there is definitely a big difference between a list of things you need to get done and an effective list of actionable tasks.

Read on and I’ll explain more . . .

Why Write A To-Do List?

Firstly though, why even bother to use a To-Do list?

Well, as an organizational tool, it can’t really get much more simple:

  1. Write down the stuff you need to do
  2. Do it
  3. Cross it off your list
  4. Move to the next thing on your list
  5. Repeat until done

Simply put, a To-Do list helps to create some order out of chaos.

In the same way that a big project may look daunting in its entirety, but much more doable when broken down into a series of smaller tasks, your life is the big project and the To-Do list breaks everything down into smaller things that are more manageable.

A crucial part of the whole process is the act of getting things out of your head and onto paper. If your head is full of unfinished tasks (David Allen calls them “open loops”) and things that require attention, it’s really hard to focus on any particular one as your brain keeps reminding you of the other stuff automatically, resulting in endless distraction – even if it is sub-conscious distraction.

Once it’s out of your head, it is much easier to formulate a plan to deal with each of the tasks.

How to write a to-do list #todolist
How to write your to-do list / pxfuel

How To Write Your To-Do List

I think pretty much everyone I have ever asked has written some form of To-Do list at some point in their life.

It may have happened at a time when they were so overwhelmed that it became absolutely necessary to lay it all out in front of them in order to get it resolved.

Or they may have been that type of person that just likes making lists.

Either way, for mostly all of us, the concept of a To-Do list is far from alien.

The crucial part of the To-Do list is whether or not the task listed is clearly actionable.

That means each item on your To-Do list needs to be the very next physical action required to move the situation forward.

This is described in Getting Things Done by David Allen, although I am not certain that this way of doing things can be solely attributed to the GTD method. I am still on my time management and productivity journey and discovering new angles and techniques all the time, so it may well be that this method is a rehashed version of something else. If you have seen it before somewhere, let me know in the comments section below.

To put this into context, what this might mean is the difference between these examples:

List 1

  1. Jeff
  2. Sort out passport
  3. Brokers
  4. Choose colour scheme for the spare bedroom
  5. Car service

List 2

  1. Call Jeff about how we set up meeting with TC
  2. Download and complete passport renewal form
  3. Find contact details for 5 insurance brokers
  4. Pick up colour swatches from the DIY store
  5. Call garage to book service

List 1 is simply reminders of things that need to be done, but List 2 is a list of the very next physical actions required to move the task along.

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is an important one, since if an objective is clear, it is much easier to complete since it encourages and motivates instant action and decision.

In comparison, a vague goal may require you to stop and consider how to approach it before proceeding. This not only wastes time, but may also prevent you from proceeding with the task straight away as planned.

Digital or Analogue
Digital or analogue? / Nick Morrison

Digital or Analogue List?

The way in which you write a To-Do list and the medium you use is quite a personal thing.

Analogue or digital, bullet journal or phone app – everyone will have their preferences. Many people operate fine with a paper-based system, while others prefer to use the latest app. Ultimately, as long as everything is a) listed as a next action, and b) gets processed properly, it really doesn’t matter which medium you choose.

What are your goals?

The first thing is to be clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Your goals determine your priorities.

Initially, the purpose of a To-Do list is really to get all the stuff you need to do out of your head and captured on paper (or digital format).

Allen advocates capturing one hundred per cent of his “stuff” in and with objective tools in hand, not in mind, because the brain only has so much capacity for this unresolved stuff and so it is crucial to get it out of your head.

The process

The basic process for using a To-Do list is as follows:

1. Get everything you need to do on paper (Master List)
2. Break down any big tasks into smaller tasks.
3. Prioritize and organize
4. Work each task into your schedule

1. Start with a master list

We all have dozens, and in some cases, possibly hundreds of tasks that need to be processed at any one time. These tasks can range from the incredibly mundane to the vitally important, e.g.

  • Clean the fish tank
  • Buy eggs
  • Get the oil changed in the car
  • Arrange a party for Alice
  • Write proposal for new client
  • Meet the accountant
  • Do a clothes wash

Get them all down on paper or in a spreadsheet or whatever you’re using.

Know what should and shouldn’t go on the list, e.g clean your teeth, eat breakfast, take a shower, sleep, etc., aren’t really tasks that need to be itemized.

Okay, that’s the easy bit.

Now you need a list that translates into actionable next tasks, which is where it can get a little tricky.

To understand what makes a To-Do list work well, it might be useful to first consider some of the things that makes them not so useful.

Here is a quick overview:

Too long/too complex: If you’re faced with many different choices and various unrelated tasks, it can present you with too much to do, which creates overwhelm.


Overcommitted: A To-Do list that is too long may mean that you are over-committing yourself for the time you have available to complete them. See the ‘Planning Fallacy‘.


They are not actions: Tasks need to be written in the form of a doable action. If they are too vague, the chances of getting them done reduce massively.


No prioritization: A To-Do list that isn’t prioritized can end up as a confusing mix of tasks differing in nature, e.g. work versus personal task. Prioritizing what needs doing is an important part of managing everything you need to get done. See this post about how to prioritize your tasks.


Mix of tasks requiring vastly different amounts of time to complete: In addition to differing by type, tasks will also require varying amounts of time and focus. Not realizing this can lead to overcommitment.


People think that working through a To-Do list is all you need: There’s much more to it than that. Getting things done effectively requires tasks to be processed properly, which involves having some systems and working methods in place.


Many people simply forget about them: You write your stuff down and get a few tasks done and then you forget about your list because you get distracted with something that is not on the list.


With these things in mind, you should now check your To-Do list and ensure that each item is the next step that you can take to either complete the task or take a step towards completing it.

A To-Do list only works if it has a structure and a system. Otherwise, it’s just an “amorphous blob of undoability” – a wonderful description I’ve lifted directly from David Allen’s book.

2. Break it down

Some items that appear on your master list might be quite general and so it is important to both break everything down to smaller tasks and make sure the item is a ‘next action’.

3. Organize your To-Do List

How you organize your list is really down to preference, but however you choose to do it, you want to delete or delegate all of the low-value tasks, so you are left with urgent and important. I basically use what is known as the Eisenhower Method or Eisenhower Box.

Check out this post: What Is The Eisenhower Box?

You could also use what is known as the 1-3-5 Rule, which is when your list for the day contains one big important/urgent task, three tasks of medium importance and five small tasks. This is particularly useful when you have a big list and so it forces you to really identify the most vital tasks only.

Simply put, make sure the most urgent and important stuff goes at the top.

4. Schedule

If the task is something that takes less than a couple of minutes, just do it now.

If it takes longer or can only be done at a certain time of day, make sure you schedule it. If you use time blocking, place it in the appropriate block.

Check out this post: How To Use Time Blocking

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

Simply writing a To-Do list does not make you more productive.

After all, it’s just a list of tasks that need to be completed. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Handling a To-Do list is an action-based process and should be part of a larger system to manage your time better, but it can also be used as a stand-alone system.

Something that puts many people off having a To-Do list is that it is never-ending. The moment you have crossed off one task on the list as completed, you can guarantee that at least one other has already appeared to replace it. In fact, sometimes it might seem that you’re adding more tasks than you are checking off.

But that is the nature of a To-Do list. It is merely a tool to organize before action to complete takes place.

Think of it like triage or a sorting office.

Tasks will be dictated by importance and/or urgency. Once they are written down, you need to decide whether to do it, delegate it or defer it.

Urgent tasks generally need to be dealt with as and when they occur. Important tasks can be placed in a calendar for later processing.

When you are writing your To-Do list, always have the bigger purpose in mind and remind yourself why the task is important, as this will help motivate you to complete the task. It is much easier to work when you have a purpose, rather than aimlessly executing task after task.

A To-Do list is an important part of managing your time well and you should schedule some time each day or at the beginning of each week that is dedicated to putting the stuff that is in your head on to paper.

You could do this as part of your morning routine or maybe before you go to bed as part of your evening routine. There are studies like this one that indicate five minutes spent writing a To-Do list could be a beneficial sleep aid, so worth a try!

How do you manage your To-Do list? Feel free to comment below.

[Featured image credit: Unsplash]

Leave a Comment