Weekly roundup: Tips for writing a better to-do list

The to-do list is one of the most classic productivity tools we have. And a lot of us rely on one. But that doesn’t mean we know how to use them well.

If you tend to lose your to-do list, avoid it when it becomes overwhelmingly long, or you simply forget to use one, these tips are for you.

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1. Share your to-do list

To-do lists are traditionally private, or at least personal. We make individual lists to suit our individual needs and responsibilities.

But what if our to-do lists were public?

It turns out, sharing with others the goals and tasks you want to accomplish can boost your productivity.

According to software developer Joe Reddington, making his to-do list public helped him see it with fresh eyes. He suddenly noticed all the duplicate tasks he’d listed, all the badly-worded or misspelled tasks, and all the confusing or badly planned tasks.

… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

Making his to-do list public made Reddington notice what was wrong with it—and fix it. After a big clean-up of his list, Reddington found he was much more productive. And when he added new tasks to the list, the knowledge that the list was public and might be viewed by others made sure he was more thoughtful in how he wrote out tasks for his future self.

I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

You don’t have to make your to-do list completely public, but try sharing it with a colleague or your boss to add a little accountability and help you see your list with fresh eyes.

2. Draw your to-do list

pencil

If you struggle to remember what’s on your to-do list, this tip is for you. Studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing.

A series of studies gave participants words that are easy to draw, such as “apple”, and pitted drawing the words against a variety of other approaches such as writing the word, describing its characteristics, or looking at a picture of the item.

In every case, those who drew the items remembered more of them.

Researchers suggest this may be because more skills are involved in drawing. We have to use our physical motor skills to make the drawing, as well as visualizing the item itself and thinking about its characteristics to help us draw it accurately. The combination of skills used may help to make more connections than simply writing down a word, which in turn helps us remember the item more easily later.

So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost.

3. Write a list of what you think you will do

Mark Forster has a blog chock-full of to-do list systems, methods, and ideas. One idea he used with great success himself was to swap his to-do list for a list of things he thought he would do.

Forster initially tried writing a standard to-do list and putting it away in a drawer, curious about whether he could complete the list without checking it all day. This experiment failed miserably, with not a single thing from the list completed at the end of the day:

On Friday I managed to spend the whole day without doing a single item on the list. I did plenty of other things but the “hidden list” seemed to repel me rather than attract me to its contents.

But when Forster wrote a list of things he thought he would do that day and left it in a drawer, he found the entire list got done:

I found myself doing the things that I had predicted. At the end of the day I had done every single item on the list without referring to it once.

Again, this may be memory-related, as imagining yourself doing various things throughout the day may make them stick better in your memory than simply writing a list of tasks you’d like to do.

Or perhaps it’s something more complicated. Perhaps by telling yourself you think you will do something, you’re actually increasing the chances that you will.

4. Keep a done list

notebook

If you never seem to get through your to-do list but you know you’re still being productive, the done list might be for you.

This idea flips the to-do list on its head. Instead of writing down things to do before you start work, you write down what you got done after you’ve done it.

So you spend your day working as you normally would, and as you finish each task or project, take a phone call or come out of a meeting, you note down on your done list what you spent your time doing.

Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, uses this approach, though he calls it an “anti-to-do list”. Gascoigne found the done list helped him overcome the tug-of-war between his planned to-do list and the inevitable tasks that popped up throughout his work day:

I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”

Gascoigne also says the done list helped him see more clearly how he was spending his time:

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done.

(If you get this feeling a lot, you can use RescueTime’s daily highlights to keep an anti-to-do list alongside your productivity data.)

At the end of a day using a done list, you’ll have a long list of completed tasks, showing everything you spent time on throughout the day. Despite working in the same way you normally would, you’ll go home satisfied with your efforts rather than disappointed that your to-do list remains incomplete.


What improvements have you made to your to-do list? Let us know in the comments.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

2 comments

  1. My problem tends to be the lack of a coherent system for my to-do list. I usually make them when I cross a threshold with things I’m holding onto in my head, and the list ends up landing in whichever list-recording medium that’s most convenient at that moment. That’s a problem because it tends to be all over the place. In my planner one day, Trello the next, maybe a spreadsheet after that. In the moment, it feels like the act of getting things out of my head and onto a screen (or paper) is helpful, but I’m not sure it helps me actually get more done. Work in progress, I guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. That’s funny, I do something quite opposite. I spend a lot of time figuring out the best medium for my to-do list because I know I’m terrible at holding things in my head. It doesn’t seem to help me any more, though, as I invariably find a hole in every system and switch it up way too often!

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