How To Make To-Do Lists That Will Actually Work


To-do lists are probably the bane of working life. You need them to get things done—almost 65% of professionals keep one, according to LinkedIn—but at the same time, sometimes just looking at one stresses you out.

As ubiquitous as the daily task list is (especially for knowledge workers), it’s also frequently ineffective. Research by iDoneThis found that more 41% of to-do items were never finished, and only 15% of “done” items started as to-do items.


That begs the question: what went wrong? If our task lists are so ineffective, why do we still stick to the same old methods expecting different results? Should the task list be thrown out entirely, as suggested by a 2012 op-ed in the Harvard Business Review, or is there simply a way to ensure that your to-do lists actually work?

Despite how frustrating it can be to be confronted on the daily by a seemingly self-replenishing task list, it might be wiser not to throw the baby out with the water. Here’s how you can actually make your to-do lists effective.

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1. Re-think how you see your to-do list


Most of us treat our to-do lists like the be-all and end-all of task management. In other words, we approach our daily task lists simply as a means of itemising our daily tasks. What we should be doing, though, is thinking of them as a means of planning how you’re going to complete work.

It might not seem like such a big difference, but approaching it in the latter way helps you put everything in perspective, as opposed to treating each item as an isolated task to be done for the sake of getting things done.


For your to-do lists to be effective, you need to understand how each task and each day’s work fits into the bigger picture. A daily to-do list, in actuality, should only be one aspect of a comprehensive personal task management system. Getting things done alone doesn’t ensure optimal progress.

At the same time, you need to keep track of your weekly, monthly, and yearly goals so that you can ensure that your daily work is feeding back into your long-term progress.


To that end, incorporating lead measures into your task list can make a huge difference. According to Cal Newport, bestselling author of “Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World”, there’s a difference between lag measures and lead measures:

  • Lag measures are what you actually want to achieve, for example, reading 1 book a week.
  • Lead measures are the KPIs that will actually get you to what you want to achieve, for example, reading 30 pages a day.

Doing this helps you to be aware of how your daily work is getting you closer to your overarching goals.



2. Incorporate critical task constraints, especially time


One of the biggest pitfalls most people encounter when crafting their daily tasks lists is failing to take into account the contraints for each tasks. Time, in particular, is a huge constraint.

Considering the number of meetings and unexpected tasks that can crop up over the course of the day, it’s also absolutely critical to be aware of how much time you actually have to accomplish each item on your task list.


Doing this will automatically force you to prioritise your work and pare your list down to just the most important things. A lot of us end up listing every little thing we need to get done by the end of the day, and we end up with a gargantuan, snaking task lists that stresses us out more than necessary and even obscures the most important tasks from our vision.

Hence, limiting the number of items on your list to 3 to 5 things you know you can accomplish is a much more effective way of doing things.


3. Consider how you’ll get things done (instead of just what you need to get done)


When it comes to optimising your personal productivity, it’s crucial to not just think about what you need to get done, but also how you’re going to get them done. So many people only consider the former when they’re doing up their daily to-do lists, without giving enough consideration to the best methods for accomplishing those tasks.


One way to do this is to use “if-then” planning. For instance, let’s say one of the things you need to do by the end of the day is to brainstorm new ideas for an upcoming meeting. Instead of leaving it an open-ended matter that you can fit in whenever your schedule allows you to throughout the day, think of it this way: “If I’m at my most creative at 4PM, then I’ll use that window of time to brainstorm my ideas.”

Research has shown that if-then statements like this are highly effective not just in helping people to accomplish what they set out to do, but in helping them to change their bad habits, like procrastination.


Another important thing to consider is to stop putting off the hard tasks in favour of the easy ones. Working on the easy tasks first may give you an initial sense of accomplishment because you feel more productive, but research has shown that it actually decreases your long-term performance.

To make it easier on yourself, break down the harder tasks into bite-sized chunks that are more doable. That way, you avoid procrastinating while also helping yourself learn and grow more by facing and overcoming challenges instead of avoiding them.


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