I had a client who came to me stressed out and overwhelmed by the many tasks of running a new organization.

She was tired of being everything to everyone and thought that if she didn’t respond right away to requests when they came, everything would fall apart.

I suggested that she write down all of her tasks and implement “To-Do List” time at the beginning of each workday.

Along with other changes we implemented, the effects she experienced from writing her to-do list were astounding. Not only did her work-related stress quickly subside, but she also won multiple new grants in a short period, and her relationship with her partner improved. Now, instead of rushing past each other, blurting out demands in the midst of caring for two small children, they let each other know what they need and work together to create a life they love.

Writing down your to-do list may be the most mundane step toward mental clarity that I could teach you, but if you’re not already doing it, it could potentially be the most profound. By always writing down every unfinished task that requires even the smallest amount of mental effort for you to remember, you’ll gain the mental space to attend to your most important tasks, allow creative ideas to emerge, and be present with the people you love.

Below are the answers to several questions I frequently get about how to create a to-do list that works.

What is important enough to write on my to-do list?

The answer is—everything. Write down every action item on your to-do list—work tasks, personal items, household chores, anything and everything that pops into your mind. Include every seemingly small task that your mind needs to attend to—like setting up meetings or gathering information. If you’re in the middle of doing something when an unfinished item occurs to you, make sure to take a moment to write it down to give yourself the mental space to refocus on what you’re doing.

How specific should I get?

Here are three rules of thumb about specificity—

  1. Make sure your action items are tasks with verbs that you can carry out. For example, rather than “files,” write “file the paper on my desk.” Rather than, “Mary,” write “Schedule a supervisory review session with Mary.”
  2. Make sure that your action items are written from a positive perspective, focused on what you will do, rather than what you won’t do. For example, rather than writing, “don’t forget to take out the garbage,” write “take out the trash.” And, yes, make sure to write down steps as mundane as taking out the trash.
  3. Break down your next action steps into the smallest steps possible to take the task off your mind completely. The best chunks are usually no bigger than two hours and often as short as five minutes.

What’s the best way to organize my list?

You can organize your action items by project category (such as Website, Workshops, Blogs) and context (like Calls, Emails, Errands, Admin, Home, Read, or Waiting for Response). It doesn’t matter exactly how you organize your action items, as long as the categories are easy for you to remember and manage. It’s good to choose categories that you use consistently, though it’s okay if they change over time as your projects change.

You’ll probably find that while your categories don’t change dramatically week to week, your action steps do. For example, for a long time, I’ve had a project category called “Website.” In the beginning, the action steps were all about creating the site. Over time, my action steps have shifted to blog writing and steps to increase my visibility online.

What other information do you recommend I include on my to-do list?

In addition to the task itself, it sometimes helps to write down two other important pieces of information—

  1. An estimate of how much time you think it’ll take to accomplish each task. Make sure to allot more time than you think you’ll need.
  2. Who will complete the task, including whether you still need to delegate the task or you’ve done so already.

What about all of the things that I want to do but don’t have time for right now?

Setting realistic expectations for yourself is important! Write items that you plan to accomplish in the next month on your current to-do list, and create a “Later List,” for everything that you don’t have time for this month or that you think you might want to do someday but aren’t yet sure when. Having a “Later List” will allow you to focus on your current priorities while trusting that your other projects will be safely waiting for you when you’re ready.

What period is it best to cover on my current to-do list?

Research shows that the most effective goals are monthly goals, and I recommend sitting down at the beginning of each month to update your to-do list and make sure you have time for all of your tasks for the month. To set your monthly goals and create a comprehensive to-do list, ask yourself the following questions—

  • What are the most important steps I can take to lead me closer to my life vision
  • Which one or two steps would make the most difference in each of the different areas of my life?
  • Once you identify your bigger goals, write down the smaller steps that will take you there this month.
  • Estimate how much time it will take to complete each of these steps.
  • Look at your list, ask yourself if there’s anything you need help with, and write down the action step to reach out for support.
  • As you move throughout the month, continue to add any and all action steps that you want to attend to this month to your current list and any tasks that you want to attend to after this month to your “later list.”

Where is best to write down my to-do list?

Keep track of all your to-do items in the same place. You may use a paper planner such as the ones created by Franklin Covey, a notebook with a page per project, or on the computer with a program such as Excel. Make sure to keep your later list in the same place as your current list, such as a separate Excel worksheet. Keep your to-do list with you at all times, but when this isn’t possible for some reason, always (and yes, I mean always) have paper or an audio recorder with you to jot down random tasks as they occur to you. As soon as you can, transfer them into your main to-do list.

This article was a basic introduction to the art of the to-do list; to get a deeper understanding, I suggest reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. That said, if these steps are new to you, I encourage you to commit to trying them out for the next month. Stick to it, and you’ll soon be experiencing the freedom that comes with a clear mind.

Finally, if you’re still stuck, you might want to consider getting support with procrastination, as this can have deeper roots in fear and shame.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you find are important elements of an effective to-do list? I’d love to hear your suggestions and questions below!

I invite you to click here to learn more about executive coaching and how it can help you become more efficient and effective.


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