8 Ways to Optimize Your To-Do List

The point of a to-do list is to help you get more done in less time. Here’s how to better structure your schedule to make that happen.

Read more from our #LISTS primer here.

To-do lists are one way to divide the world into us vs. them. In one camp are the true believers, those who make to-do lists—who live and die by them and can’t imagine how other people ever get anything done without them. In the other, the atheists, who consider their counterparts obsessive, compulsive, or, more likely, both.

If you happen to fall into the second camp, you can go ahead and continue flying by the seat of your pants. If, however, you’re among the 75 percent of Americans who relies on a to-do list, you might want to take note of these eight ways to make your list more effective.

  1. Keep the big picture front and center. According to Lifehack, every item on your list should relate to your grandest life goals. This doesn’t mean hours of contemplating your navel, but if you’ve never considered this, it’s a powerful exercise to keep your daily tasks connected to your highest ambitions. Anyone can keep busy, but to be truly effective and successful, the items on your list should support, or lay the groundwork for, a greater intention. Of course you’ll need to get more granular (so read on), but you should review your big goals every three to six months to make sure things haven’t changed and that you’re not pursuing old objectives. If a situation shifts, don’t hesitate to revise your strategy.
  2. Choose the medium that’s most comfortable for you. While some people prefer a handwritten list, others are happier going digital (see our roundup of great list-making apps) so their list goes where they go and follows them across platforms. While there’s no shortage of organizational tools, the best ones offer excellent syncing and scheduling options, notifications and reminders—or whatever combination of features and flexibility are right for you. Whichever you pick, don’t waste a lot of time reviewing, rewriting, and editing the list itself. (That’s called procrastinating.)
  3. Write your list (or update it electronically) the night before. In a Fast Company post, business, leadership, and career writer Gwen Moran says if you have a freshly updated and prioritized list waiting for you when you start your day, you can hit the ground running. “For many people, morning is a high-energy time, and having your to-do list already in hand means you don’t waste any super-charged minutes figuring out what to do next.” According to Inc.com, data shows that most people are more efficient in the morning. So ride that wave and bang out big chunks of work early in the day. Tackle the most important, most pressing item on your list first thing, before returning phone calls, answering emails, or making dinner reservations. As the day’s distractions build you’ll already have knocked out at least one important goal. Hopefully more.
  4. Keep it simple. Actually, there are two schools of thought on this one. The first subscribes to the theory that you should do a “brain cleanse” (a.k.a. brain dump) to get every single task out of your head and onto a sheet of paper (or app) and prioritize from there. Others, including Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova, say, the simpler the better, since shorter lists are easier to prioritize and manage. Popova notes that luminaries from Benjamin Franklin to U.S. generals to Drew Carey have been stymied by lists that runneth over . While you might not be able to whittle your list down to, say, three items, there is value in not overcrowding; a laundry list of 25 to-dos can be both distracting and overwhelming. You can always add those lower-priority items back tomorrow.
    In fact, some experts say that if you really want a list to work for you, you need more than one. They use this analogy: When you file important papers, you don’t toss everything into the same folder, you divide them up and group them accordingly. (Well, at least some of us do.) You should handle your list the same way. Create one list for work tasks, one for personal tasks; or, one for short-term goals (today) and another for long-term goals (this year).
  5. Break big projects down into actionable steps. Say you’re looking for a nanny, and that’s tops on your personal tasks list. Rather than write “Find nanny,” create small, doable steps, like, “Call Erin and ask about her nanny,” or “Check x website for au pair recommendations.” Even better, include phone numbers, URLs and other info right there, alongside the task.
  6. Organize your actionable items by group and type. A good way to maximize your time and make sure you’re getting things accomplished is by chunking similar items together in one section. Mindjet.com suggests clustering them by location or function (e.g., phone calls, or things you do on your computer). With location, you can subdivide those to avoid backtracking. So for instance, even if mailing a package at the post office is low priority, if the post office is in between the bank and drugstore, which are higher up on your list, group those three together into one chore.
  7. Schedule tasks into your calendar. First, estimate how much time each will take, and then find blocks of time that you can devote to a number of items at once. Many experts say three hours is a good span of time to accomplish a lot but not get lost in the weeds. And then—a little psychological ploy—build in rewards for yourself for when missions are accomplished, like posting to Instagram, or perhaps having a delicious snack. (The highly efficient might even create a sublist of rewards!) Which leads to our last tip….
  8. Take breaks. This is less about the list itself and more about your own efficiency — and wellbeing (though scheduling breaks is actually CEO-approved). Repeat after us: You are not too busy to take a break. Making time for breaks throughout your workday will keep you happier, more focused and more productive, whether you’re in a corner office or a cubicle. There’s plenty of science to back this up. AJ Agrawal, the CEO of Alumnify, says he likes “to compare to-do lists to running sprints. You work as hard as you can to get to the finish line, then you stop and take a break. Then you repeat the process.”
    Agrawal likes playing chess, so after completing a block of work he’ll take a break and play a game or two. After that he’ll log out of social media, put the phone away and knuckle down for the next set of tasks. Without distractions. “Either you’re taking care of business, or you’re taking a break,” he says. “Somewhere in the middle is a place you never want to be.”