6 Ways to Transform Your Relationship With Your To-Do List, According to Productivity Experts

published Sep 20, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

To-do lists can be a blessing and a curse. They can help you remember important tasks by getting everything you want to accomplish out of your brain and onto a piece of paper, but they can also be intimidating reminders of everything you haven’t started or don’t have time to accomplish.

If your to-do list feels more like an enemy than a helpful tool, you may want to consider resetting your expectations not only about the list, but for yourself, too. These expert tips for structuring the to-do list and reframing your relationship with it will keep you feeling productive rather than overwhelmed. 

Find a format that works for you.

Start at the very beginning — in this case, that includes where you’re making your lists. Maybe you’re a planner person. Maybe you prefer to use sticky notes or on an app like Evernote. If there’s a certain format that really works with your brain and lifestyle, stick with it. Don’t feel pressured to buy a special notepad or download an app if it’s not your thing. 

“​​The tool you least resist is the tool you’re going to use most often,” advises productivity expert Grace Marshall. “If you know that you’re not going to use it, it’s not going to save you.” 

Experiment with new structures.

The good news is that there’s no “best” way to structure and organize your list. Writer and editor Jenée Desmond-Harris’s tweet about her to-do list structure went viral for good reason — it was a great example of how changing the way you organize your tasks can help you get things done and set boundaries at work and at home. “I started dividing my to-do list into 1) things I have to do, 2) things I want to do, and 3) things other people want me to do. Life changing! I often don’t get to 3 and I finally realized omg, is this what it means to have boundaries?!” she tweeted. 

To make her to-do list work for her, Desmond-Harris writes everything down in Microsoft Word and moves them around until the order makes sense. “I noticed a while ago that I was never done with the list. I rarely got to a point in the evening when I could go for a walk, or work out, or go to the beach, or read a book or get on the phone with loved ones. […] I was like, ‘I’m clearly not the busiest person on earth, so where is my time going?'” she tells Apartment Therapy. “When I paid attention I realized that after I finished work and basic adult life tasks (which I label ‘things I have to do’) I was getting stuck on things other people wanted me to do.”

While she enjoys helping other people out with their requests, she realized that those asks, plus other tasks she “felt neutral about” were “standing between me and free time — all because of what others wanted,” she said. “It’s not that I started saying no to everything in this category, but I just put these items at the bottom of my list, and if I don’t get to them, it’s okay.”

You can also consider splitting up your list into categories such as work versus home, or “must do” versus “if I have time to do,” to help you prioritize, divide and conquer. If you thrive on checking off a box, consider breaking tasks down into “quick fixes” and “longer projects” and do the quick tasks first to give you a boost of accomplishment. If you’re a visual person, color-coding your list may be key.

Make a smaller list for daily tasks.

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam recommends making two lists, including a big brain dump of everything you want to get done, and a smaller list of about five tasks that you will absolutely accomplish that day. “That is not the way most people make their lists; they make it more of a wish list,” she explains. “That isn’t useful, because when you put 30 items on a daily to-do list, you’re not going to do all 30. There’s no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and not doing it.” 

Instead, Vanderkam advises thinking of the smaller daily list as a contract with yourself. “When something goes on today’s to-do list, that means you’re going to do it today,” she says. “If you do that, you’ve had to really prioritize and think through what actually does need to happen today … and you start feeling much better about your to-do list.”

Don’t feel pressured to check off every box every day.

You’re not superhuman. “See today’s to-do list as the menu, not the meal,” advises Marshall. “You might do a big brain dump and put everything you need to do at some point on your list, but if you try to work from that it may be overwhelming. If you see it as a menu, you pick what you have what you have capacity for, just like when you go into a restaurant.” If you’re dealing with a particularly meeting-heavy day and won’t have time to get uninterrupted work done, don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to accomplish anything that isn’t absolutely urgent.

Review your list on a regular basis.

Marshall recommends sitting down and going through your to-do lists on a weekly basis. ​​”Once a week is a good check,” she says. “That helps you to see patterns and helps you to think and plan ahead.” While she uses her to-do list each day, she “scans the horizon” weekly to see what’s coming up and where she can optimize her time.

Embrace setting realistic expectations and moving things to different days.

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and life happens. Once you’ve found a to-do list flow that works for you, you may discover you’re more comfortable moving tasks or admitting something won’t get done that day. “You’ll start to feel more confident about assigning yourself things for different days,” shares Vanderkam. “You can say, ‘Yes, I need to write this memo, and it doesn’t fit in today, but if I know if I put it in on the list for Wednesday it will get done.’” You’re not putting something off until tomorrow; you’re giving the task the time and space it deserves for a job well done.