How to set up a to do list that actually works for you

How to set up a task list that actually works for you? Boost your productivity with an effective task list.

An effective to do list is the first step to a more effective you

In my last blog post, I discussed reasons why you should use a to-do list. Clients who start using to-do lists often tell me that they are one of the most effective tools in increasing their personal productivity. They help you become more focused on your goals, organise thoughts, manage your time and tasks, and boost motivation.

With an effective to-do list, you will be in control of your personal and professional life. The question is, then, how do you set up a to-do list that actually works for you and helps you achieve more? How do you decide what should be on your list, and how do you organise your task manager so that your to-do list isn’t a demotivating bunch of unachievable tasks?

The to-do list essentials that make you more successful

Setting up a to-do list that actually works is not easy. And you probably won’t be 100% satisfied when you set it all up the first time. However, the following is a very good starting point, and is a method that has proven to work for many people. Remember though, that you will likely find that you’ll continue to improve with small iterations until you perfect the system for you.

Before you start creating and filling your to-do list(s), there are several key things you should consider:

Your task manager must be easy to use

Your task manager is the tool you use to oversee your to-do list(s). When you do it right, you will work with your task manager every single day, multiple times per day. Next to your calendar, it is the tool that tells you what to do.

It’s imperative that it is easy (and fun!) to use. If it is complicated, you’ll soon trash it. Whatever task management system you employ (whether it’s an app on your mobile, task manager software on your laptop or tablet, or a pen and paper system), it must be easy to add, change, and tick off the tasks on your lists. Preferably, it should also give you the option to categorise your tasks (see following points).

One big, long list does not work

If you’re like most people, you’ll have a lot of things going on: personal and professional projects; lots of assignments to complete; people to see; places to go; etc. If you simply write down everything you need or want to do and then hit the start button, it is very likely that you will:

  • Miss deadlines and targets
  • Forget a lot of things
  • Become overwhelmed and demotivated
  • Never be able to focus fully
  • Waste time and energy
  • Never be in control of all the things you want to do

Actually, it’s probably better to have NO to-do list at all than having one big, long list. I suggest to all my clients that they make multiple to-do lists in their task manager. I suggest at least the following lists:

  1. One general personal list. This list will contain all the personal tasks you need to do that are not part of a bigger project you are working on. Examples can be: “Buy new batteries for the remote control” or “Make an appointment with the garage to change my car’s tyres”.
  2. One general professional list. Similar to the general personal list, this lists those professional tasks that are not part of a bigger project or responsibility. For example, “Set up lunch with my manager for next week” or “Prepare slide deck for next week’s team meeting”.
  3. One list for each of the big projects you are working on, and roles and responsibilities you have – whether personal or professional. For example, you could create a list for the Photography course you are taking, or if you are a manager of a team you can create a list that contains all tasks you need to do as a manager (“schedule performance meetings” or “Prepare teambuilding activity” etc.).

With such a set-up you create ultimate focus. If you are at work, you don’t want to be distracted by your photography tasks. When at home, you will only see your personal tasks.

Prioritise your tasks

For each task, you should decide what its priority is. The goal is to create ultimate focus. For example, you don’t need to see tasks that can only be done in six months’ time. They only distract. I suggest a three-layer priority system:

  1. ‘Now’ – those tasks that must be done as soon as possible, either today or tomorrow.
  2. ‘Soon’ – those tasks that you want to do within the next two or three weeks.
  3. ‘Someday’ – those tasks that you would like to do at some time in the future, further out than your ‘Soon’ priority tasks.

Obviously, the priority of a task can change over time. You might add a specific task to one of your lists now, which can only be done in two months’ time. So this becomes a ‘Someday’ task. However, in a few weeks’ time it becomes a ‘Soon’ or ‘Now’ task. This is one of the reasons why it is important to schedule planning time in your calendar during which you review all your tasks.

An additional categorisation for the experts

For the experts, there is an extra layer of categorisation I recommend: “Context”. For example, you may have tasks that can only be done at the office, or at home, or on the phone, or in the supermarket. You may also have tasks that need to be completed with other people (for example, something that must be discussed with your manager).

When you consider yourself an expert, try to add context tags to your tasks, such as: @Home; @Office; @Phone; @Manager; @Spouse; and so on.

Getting started with your to-do lists

Here’s how to put all of this into action:

Step 1: Do a brain-dump

Get a piece of paper and write down all your thoughts, ideas, goals, to-dos, etc. At this stage, don’t worry about lists, deadlines or priorities. All you need first is a long list of everything that you want to do. Don’t leave any stone unturned. Consider your professional and personal life, your relationships, clubs and associations with which you are involved, volunteering work you do, and so on. (Hey, if you want to make sure you miss nothing off your list, email me and I’ll send you a handy ‘getting things done' checklist).

Step 2: Choose your task manager

There are many task management tools available today, analogue and digital. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Whichever you choose, stick with it for 6 to 12 months to give you time to learn what you like and what it is missing for you. If you want to change to a different task manager, you’ll be more informed to make the change. Great task managers on the market include: Todoist; Things, Outlook Tasks; Wunderlist, Trello; Remember The Milk,; Bullet Journal; and even good old-fashioned pen and paper!

Step 3: Set up your task manager

In your task manager, set up your categorised lists:

  1. Create a ‘Personal General’ list
  2. Create a ‘Professional General’ list
  3. Create lists for your big projects, roles, and responsibilities
  4. Set up your priorities (‘Now’, ‘Soon’, ‘Someday’)
  5. Set up your contexts (if you want to use them)

Step 4: Start filling up your to-do lists

Follow these steps, in order, on each of the items in your braindump and start filling up the to-do lists in your task manager:

  1. For each item, consider if it is really important to you. If not, delete it.
  2. When you keep the item, decide what the next action (or next actions) must be to move forward with the item.
  3. Note this/these action(s) in the appropriate to-do list.
  4. Decide and assign the priority for each action.
  5. Assign the context if you are using it.

That’s it! You’re good to go. You now have meaningful and effective to-do lists set up in your task manager in such a way that it will increase your productivity and help you achieve your personal and professional goals faster.

In my next post, I’ll be discussing tips to take your task manager to the next level to really unleash the power of a to-do list. In the meantime, to fast-track your productivity, contact me today. Together, we’ll develop a plan to help you achieve more and be better than ever.