When many of my clients first come to me, an enormous amount of unfinished tasks clutter their minds. Rather than consistently writing things down in one place, they expect their brains to remember all sorts of responsibilities and to-dos. They write their tasks on lots of sticky notes or backs of envelopes or random pieces of paper strewn all over the place. 

Does this sound like you? If so, this article is for you.

You know the feeling when a song just gets stuck in your head? The earworm in your head repeats it over and over and over. Trying to hold an unfinished task in your mind can feel like this. Part of you worries that you won’t complete the job, so it keeps reminding you until it knows it’s taken care of. Until your mind trusts that an incomplete thought is safely held, it will have a hard time letting it go. 

When you try to remember multiple tasks at once, it becomes nearly impossible to be fully present, and you clutter up the mental space that you need to be able to come up with creative new thoughts. As David Allen writes in Getting Things Done

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

The good news is that there’s a simple solution: writing things down in one place. When you consistently practice getting all your tasks out of your head and into one system, it becomes much easier to focus. Your to-do list becomes like an external hard drive that holds all your unfinished tasks until you’re ready to handle them. The more you write things down and complete them later, the more your mind can trust you to attend to your tasks when you’re ready. The more you’re able to stop worrying about what you need to do in the future, and instead, be fully present with the task in front of you. 

If you don’t yet have a to-do list system that works for you, the rest of this article is for you.

Either take the following steps now to create your to-do list system or, if you can’t take these steps immediately, look at your calendar and plan when you will return to this article. Granted, it will take some time, commitment, and practice to set up your system and integrate it into your life. However, if you devote this time now, you will save yourself lots of time and energy in the long run. 

When you’re ready, here are the seven steps to setting up a to-do list system that works.

1. Choose your system.

I recommend using Google Sheets or Excel for your list because, as opposed to paper, these systems allow you to iterate easily. You can move things around, add items, delete items, change categories, highlight tasks, move them to your later list (more about that below), and add additional tabs to hold other information. Google sheets are almost identical to excel documents, but you can share it with other people and access it with multiple devices. You can take a look at a snapshot of part of my to-do list at one moment in time here: Katherine’s To-Do List.

Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with Google sheets, it may feel like a bit of a learning curve. That said, please know that I’ve taught this system to many tech-phobic clients who were once convinced they were a lost cause and now depend on the system to keep themselves organized. 

Occasionally, clients want to use a paper system, and if that’s you, my opinion is that Franklin Covey planners are the best paper planners out there. But I’ve also seen many people struggle with paper planners. 

Regardless of which system you use, I urge you not to get stuck in a search for perfection. Early in my coaching career, I saw a lot of people get stuck trying to find the perfect app to organize their tasks. They took months to choose one system, rather than picking one that was good enough and making it work. Please don’t do that. Start with a system that’s good enough.

2. Get all of your unfinished tasks out of your brain and into the system.

Once you select your system, do a brain dump into the system. Get every unfinished task that requires even the slightest bit of mental energy out of your head, including work tasks, personal items, household chores, meetings to set up, tasks to delegate, anything that pops into your mind. 

Sometimes clients ask me if they should keep their personal tasks and work-related tasks in the same list. I personally like to hold all of my unfinished tasks in the same system because it allows me to see my life in one place. That said, it’s important to organize your list in a way that makes sense to you. Perhaps you’ll keep all of your tasks on the same tab. Maybe you’ll have one tab for personal items and another for work. Sometimes, my clients work in an organization or company that already uses a system that works well to keep shared tasks organized. Play with it and notice what works. Do more of what works and iterate on the rest.

3. Create two tabs: one of this month and a second for your “Later List.” 

One of the main reasons that people feel overwhelmed when they look at their to-do lists is that they keep short-term and long-term tasks on the same page. There’s no way that they could complete all of the tasks on their list anytime soon, and this makes them feel defeated before they even start crossing things off.

The solution is to have two lists held together, like two different tabs in the same excel document: One list is for tasks you intend to finish this month, and the other is  your “Later List.” Your “Later List” holds everything you might want to accomplish someday but don’t have time for this month.One client calls it her “Someday, Maybe” list. Having a “Later List” allows you to focus on your current priorities while trusting that your other ideas are held until you’re ready.

To create your “Later List,” look through your list of to-dos. Decide what you realistically plan to complete this month. Keep that on this month’s list. Then, move everything else to your “Later list.”

4. Organize this month’s list into categories. 

Organize your action steps into categories, separated by a row with the name of the category. Choose categories that are easy for you to understand. You can organize your tasks by project or by type of activity: calls, emails, errands, admin, read, or waiting for a response. I love using an online system because you can change your categories to reflect your current projects and priorities, so make sure to edit your categories as your tasks change. 

5. Break down your tasks into the smallest steps possible. 

Another reason why many people feel overwhelmed by their to-do list is that they’re not breaking their tasks down into bite-sized chunks. It’s like they’re trying to eat a cow in one sitting. You’re apt to feel overwhelmed if you look at your list and see huge projects like “create a free offer for a website” or “gather new testimonials” or “send holiday mailing.”

Instead of overwhelming yourself in this way, make your big projects into categories. Then, write down all the steps you’ll need to take to complete the project as tasks underneath. Make each action step no bigger than a few hours and as short as a couple of minutes. As you do this, write down any additional tasks that come to your mind onto your list.

6. Create a category for “pending” tasks at the bottom of this month’s list.

There will likely be several tasks on your list that you don’t have complete control over like emails you’re waiting for a response to and tasks you’re waiting for someone else to complete. It helps to keep track of these tasks, too. 

For these tasks, I recommend having a category called “Pending” at the bottom of your to-do list. You can move all your pending items there. Then, every couple of days, you can check this list and see if there are items you need to follow up on or can cross off of your list.

7. Make sure your tasks start with specific action verbs. 

For example, rather than “desk,” write “clean my desk.” Rather than, “Mary,” write “Schedule a supervisory review session with Mary.” Although this level of detail may feel unnecessary at first, by using a specific action verb, you make sure that rather than having to waste time deciphering what you wrote before, you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to do when you return to your list.

Whew! That’s a lot. I’m sending you a seriously big congratulations if you got through all of those steps. If you have any questions whatsoever, please feel free to write questions under my blog post, and I will be happy to respond to you.

I wish you all the best with creating a to-do list system that works for you. Like I said above, setting this up and integrating the practice into your life will take some time. But I can confidently say from using this system for almost a decade and teaching it to countless clients: the mental space and focus are worth it.

Happy organizing!

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