5 Simple, Proven To-Do List Hacks that Keep Me Happier and More Productive

published Aug 20, 2019
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If you ask my friends and family to describe my interests, I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if someone said, “Um… writing to-do lists?”

Sure, being very, very into writing daily lists of tasks and reminders isn’t exactly a personality trait, but I still consider it an integral part of my daily routine. Each evening as I’m winding down the day, I flip the page in my Moleskine journal (although I’ve used legal pads, composition books, and napkins in the past) and I write a full list of everything I have to do—big, small, and in between. Most things are work tasks, but a good deal of them have nothing to do with deadlines or big projects at all. In fact, some are specifically aimed at supporting my mental health and wellness. 

Some people are of the belief that having an extra-long, jot-everything-down to-do list is excessive—that it ends up being more overwhelming to people than helpful. And while I can certainly understand that perspective, that’s not how I view my to-do list. To me, my list is an anchor. It keeps me grateful, motivated, focused, and organized.

Over the years I’ve developed little hacks and tricks that make my to-do list work for me. As long and detailed as it can get, it always makes me feel better—regardless of how productive I’m being on any given day.

If you’re looking for some tips to make your to-do list feel more like a gift than a curse, try some of the below and you just might be surprised. 

I Put Two of the Same Exact Things on Every List, Every Day 

Every single day, regardless of work or travel or anything else, I put two of the same reminders on my to-do list. These are the anchor tasks that keep me organized and help me feel confident and grounded.

The first is practical: I remind myself to check my bank account. As someone who once would put off checking my finances for a week or two, this has changed my life. I never miss a strange charge, I always know how much money I’m working with, and as a result I never, ever feel out of control when it comes to money, regardless of what my balance. It’s usually what I check off my list first as it’s easy and quick and gets the productivity rolling for the rest of my day.

The second one is anything but practical: I make myself list three good things, every day. Sometimes these are things like a great episode of new TV to look forward to that night (looking at you, “Big Little Lies”), other times they’re that I was able to make a healthy lunch or got to talk to my mom on the phone. No matter what I list though, it’s a reminder to say positive. On the busiest days, there are always good things.

Credit: Kim Lucian

I Stopped Leaving Things Un-Done By Using an Arrow 

It used to drive me absolutely nuts to leave things un-checked or without a strike-through on my list. Not accomplishing everything on your to-do list is always going to be a thing, though—so I figured out a way to never leave anything on my list without a mark through it on any given day: I just add an arrow to the end of that line.

This accomplishes two things: One, it reminds me that not getting something done but pushing it to tomorrow is sometimes necessary. Heck, sometimes it’s productive in its own right. The arrow reminds me that doing something tomorrow is fine, too. The other thing it helps with? It actually reminds me to do the thing tomorrow. When I’m making my to-do list, the tasks with arrows are the first things I write down.

I Put Things On My List That I’ve Already Done 

I don’t care if it wastes time, or it defeats the purpose of a to-do list, or it’s silly. I regularly put things I’ve already accomplished on my to-do list throughout the day. Go on an awesome run that morning that you hadn’t planned on? Work on an unexpected project that you’re really proud of? Try adding it to your list that afternoon and crossing it off. You accomplished something. Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t on your list to begin with or you forgot to put it on. You deserve to take every opportunity to feel good about getting something done.

I Have Corresponding Housekeeping & Self-Care Check Lists 

This is something I’ve started doing recently, and I already love how it makes me feel. I used to lump all of my self-care goals (drinking 100 ounces of water, etc.) on the same list as everything else, but it would often get lost. Now I keep a separate list (usually on the left side of my notebook, while the other list lives on the right side) full of things like doing research on a new gym, making a veggie-filled lunch, or organizing my underwear drawer. It feels… well, super satisfying. Even if I don’t get everything done (I’m still putting off the organizing the underwear drawer one, if we’re being honest), I love just thinking about what I can do in a given day to clear my headspace and help me feel less anxious.

I Always Use My To-Do List as a Reminder to Make My Next One

The words “schedule tomorrow” are almost always on my daily to-do list. And when they’re not, I regret it. Writing down my to-do list the night before has made the biggest difference in helping me remember deadlines, plan out my daily schedule, and relax. I don’t feel anxious about what’s going to come the next day because I know exactly what tasks I have to perform. I’ve already written stars by the most urgent things, and I’ve already written self-care and housekeeping goals.

It helps me sit back and relax every evening, and hit the ground running the next morning.