Mastering the art of to-do lists

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to do list

We’re all familiar with them… the humble “to do” list is a staple of desktops everywhere – whether physical or digital. But how many of us can say that their daily to-do list is positively impacting our productivity and the way we work? Here’s our guide on how to master the art of to-do lists.

Why do we write to-do lists?

Experts agree that to-do lists are a great way to prioritize our goals for the day – provided we tackle them in the right way.

So what are the best ways to master the art of using to-do lists beneficially?


#1. Use paper

According to technology writer Nicholas Carr, “The medium does matter… a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does exactly the opposite.”

#2. Choose a system that suits you

 Many people favour a simple list. Or you could use a system such as bullet journaling. According to Daniel Levitin, author of Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, many successful people – including Nobel prize winners – favour index cards because they are simple to review and reprioritize.

#3. Compile tomorrow’s to-do list the night before

Begin the day the right way. That means not scrabbling around, wasting valuable time in the morning thinking through the tasks you need to do that day. Instead, write your to-do list the night before. If you prefer not to do this at bedtime, write your to-do list before you leave your desk at the end of the day, so it is waiting for you when you arrive the next morning.


#4. Have a master list

 Writing in Bullet Journal, Kara Benz recommends using a separate notebook for a master to-do list or “brain dump”. This will form the basis for your daily to-do lists. Warren Buffet reportedly uses a similar approach. He favours writing down 25 tasks you think you need to do and then identifying the five most important to make it to your daily to-do list.


#5. Prioritize the tasks you really need to do

Benz suggests that you identify the three most important tasks on your to-do list and prioritize completing these first. She suggests asking yourself three questions to help you prioritize:

  • Which tasks are urgent and need to get done today?
  • Which tasks will have the most impact on my day?
  • If I get nothing else done today, which three tasks will make me feel that I have accomplished the most?


#6. Be specific

 When adding a task to your daily to-do list, make sure you apply the traditional mnemonic: make sure your goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound.


#7. Break tasks into achievable chunks

 If you know that a task is going to take more than one day to complete, break it down into more realistic and achievable chunks.


#8. Your attitude matters

Andy Puddicombe, cofounder of says, “It’s the attitude we bring to the list that makes the difference.” He’s a big proponent of meditation to help you prioritize and focus.


#9. Roll over tasks you don’t complete

Any tasks that don’t get completed will automatically roll onto the task list for the following day. When you do this, remember to think about the prioritization of the tasks anew. What is right for tomorrow?


#10. Learn from your unactioned tasks

If you find that some tasks stubbornly remain on your to-do list, repeatedly rolling on from one day to the next, be honest with yourself about the cause for this. Is the tasks too broad or daunting? If so, can you break it down into more manageable chunks that can be spread across the week or month? Slow progress is better than no progress!

If you’re really struggling, Benz recommends making these tasks one of your top three priorities for the day – this way, you can “get it over with and save yourself the grief”.


What next?

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