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How to Make a Better To-Do List

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistOctober 25, 2019

Like most people (including me), you probably rely on a list to keep track of tasks you need to complete. To-do lists can be incredibly useful in moving forward and getting things done, and crossing items off a list can feel very satisfying.

But a to-do list can be a double-edged sword, and even an obstacle to completing our tasks. It all depends on how you’re using it. Here are five key ways to maximize the usefulness of your to-do lists:

Make It Motivating

When a to-do list is done right, it inspires you to get your tasks done. An inspiring list includes items that are specific, and small enough that they feel doable—too big or vague and they’ll be overwhelming and dispiriting. An example from my own life: “Garden” is vague and probably encompasses many sub-tasks, like weeding multiple beds, pruning, harvesting, and watering.

It’s also demoralizing to have items on your list that you keep not getting to, like organizing all your family photos. Seeing the same big, undone project on your lists can bring a sense of hopelessness. If breaking it into smaller tasks isn’t helpful, it may be time to remove these items from your list. If it’s important enough, you’ll circle back to it at some point.

Action Step: Pick an important task on your to-do list that you’ve been struggling to get to, and create a separate list of bite-sized subtasks that make up the big one (thanks to Dr. Alice Boyes for this tip). For any tasks you’re unlikely to get to in the near future, remove them from the list you see every day, perhaps parking them on a “For Later” list—things you’ll eventually come back to but don’t need to see every day. 

Connect It to Your Calendar

To-do lists are a great way to keep track of what you need to do. However, they’re typically missing a crucial piece of information: when you’re going to complete your tasks. Putting a task into your calendar greatly increases the odds that you’ll do it, because you’ve blocked off time for it. It lets you relax, too, knowing that you’ll take care of everything you need to in its own time. Calendars also help you to be realistic with your planning, as you see what you can actually accomplish in a day. 

Action Step: Commit to doing three tasks from your list by reserving a specific time in your calendar to do them this week.

Emphasize the “Do” in “To-Do”

To-do lists work well when we use them to move through our tasks consistently and systematically. They can also backfire when we use them as a place to “park” tasks we’re putting off, reassuring ourselves that “we’ll get to it” because it’s on the list. As a result, our to-do list can promote avoidance rather than action.

Notice if there are tasks that have been on your list for a long time—ones you keep rewriting each time you make a new list, probably with a sinking feeling. Each time you put off doing the task, you’re strengthening the tendency to procrastinate. Find a way to get started on these tasks as soon as possible, before avoidance becomes a bigger issue. 

Action Step: Choose a task that’s been on your to-do list for a long time, and find a specific time to get started on it today. If you’re not sure how to get started, make “Figure out how to get started” an item on your list.  

Keep It Organized

A helpful to-do list is singular—one list. If you have multiple lists in different places—sticky notes on your desk, handwritten notes on the fridge, a list of items on your phone or computer—then keeping track of your lists becomes a task of its own! There will likely be redundant items on the list, and you’ll feel anxious about missing something from losing a list or not checking all of them.

Instead, keep a single list in a prominent place, and update it frequently. If it’s handwritten, make it legible so you don’t have to puzzle over what it says. The time you invest in tending to your list will more than pay off in the long run in greater efficiency.

Action Step: If you’re working from multiple to-do lists, set aside time to create a list that works. Gather up all your to-do items and put them on your single, well-organized list. Then throw away all your old lists.

Stay Focused

Finally, your to-do list will serve you best when it helps you to focus on one task at a time. (Putting the tasks into your calendar, as described above, is an effective way to know what one task you’re working on.) We often get overwhelmed by our to-do lists because we keep seeing all the “not now” tasks; as a result, it can feel like no matter what we’re working on, we “should” be tackling other items.

Remind yourself that you can do only one thing at a time. Give that task your full energy and attention, as if it’s all that matters—because while you’re spending precious moments of your life on it, it’s the most important thing there is.

Action Step: Practice bringing your full awareness to your next task, even consecrating it as sacred work. Make it an exercise in mindful awareness as you notice all the sensory experiences that are a part of it. (See this previous post for more details.)

With care and attention, your to-do list can continually move you toward life as you want to live it.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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