How To Make a Truly-Useful (And Non-Stressful) To-Do List

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A day without a to-do list is kind of like dancing without a soundtrack: You can do it, sure, but you may not feel like you have a rhythm. There's something concrete and grounding about taking the time to outline your day, but if you're not sure how to go about it (yet), we tapped experts for a back-to-the-basics, how to make a to-do list guide.

Ahead, Leslie Tarnacki, SVP of human resources at WorkForce Software and Stephanie Lovell, career expert at Hirect, walk you through what qualities go into an effective to-do list. Plus, you’ll learn how to write one yourself in five easy steps. Before you know it, you'll be an old pro with a reliable strategy for structuring your every day.

Experts In This Article
  • Leslie Tarnacki, Leslie Tarnacki is the SVP of HR at Workforce Software, a workforce management system.
  • Stephanie Lovell, Stephanie Lovell is a career expert at Hirect, an app that specializes in start-up hiring.

What constitutes an "effective" to-do list

Creating a to-do list is way more about how you feel at the end of the day than how many tasks you checked off, according to Lovell. "An effective to-do list will leave individuals feeling accomplished and motivated to take on larger projects and tasks," she says.

More than that, a task list that's doing its job should make your job less stressful and cultivate self-trust. "Having a reliable system makes attaining your goals less stressful as it allows for each to get broken down into smaller, actionable steps," Lovell says. "By mapping out what it takes to complete a task, individuals will feel less intimidated by the to-do at hand and more productive in the long run."

So if you're wondering if your current to-do list system works, think: Do I feel a sense of pride in my work? Did I feel productive (by my own definition) today? If the answer is yes and yes, you're crushing the whole getting sh*t done thing. Now, you're ready to grab your pen and paper—or laptop—and make a list.

How to make a to-do list, your step-by-step guide

Step 1: Choose the right method for you

Are you more of a paper planner person? Or do you prefer to keep your to-do list synced on the old Cloud so you can check it anywhere?

Before you get started, do a little soul-searching so you can compile your list in the best format possible for Y-O-U. "The first step in creating a to-do list is deciding where you want to keep it. Some individuals work better on their phones or computers, while others like to color code and manually check the boxes. Decide what works best for you and stick to it," says Lovell. 

That also means switching your chosen format if you find it simply doesn't work for you.

Step 2: Take stock of your ethics and your abilities

"Not all individuals work on the same timeline, so developing a to-do list that aligns with your work ethic, ability, and schedule is essential and will minimize the burden of completing each task successfully," says Tarnacki. A little bit of level-setting beforehand can go a long way.

Ask yourself: What makes me feel accomplished? What goals are within my reach, and which goals are stretch goals? Then, you can design your to-do list with a nice mix of tasks that don't ask too much from you, but do stretch the bounds of your abilities. Growth and comfort should be a constant push and pull when it comes to your TDL.

Step 3: Make your list

Alright, it's time. Go ahead and write your to-do list with a few tips in mind:

  • Break big tasks into smaller, bite-sized tasks. For example, if you have a deck due on Friday, pencil in "complete slides one through three" for Tuesday and "complete slides four through six" on Wednesday, and so on. That way, you're not stuck in a six-hour, deck-writing crunch on Thursday evening.
  • Limit the total number of tasks you schedule each day. "It’s easy to throw a ton of to-dos onto your plate. However, it’s not always beneficial and can often lead to increased stress and burnout," says Lovelly. "Be sure to provide yourself with a realistic amount of time to complete all the necessary tasks and focus on priority items."
  • Make every list item goal-oriented rather than task-oriented. "Goals should be your big-picture achievements or desired outcomes, and your task list should guide you towards attaining them," says Lovell. For example, maybe your goal is to reach inbox zero. So you decide to answer a few emails each day until—woohoo!—you do it.

Step 4: Slot in placeholders for the unexpected

Life isn't perfect, so your to-do list needs to be flexible enough to help you roll with the punches. "Projects don’t always go as expected, and planning for that potential will decrease stress and ensure you have time to adjust and accomplish the task," says Tarnacki.

Instead of packing your schedule to the brim, leave a little space for the unforeseen. If you don't end up needing that extra time, you can use it to get ahead for tomorrow or take a self-care moment instead.

Step 5: Revise, revise, revise

Before you decide your to-do list is ready to be put into action, check it again. Is it in the best order? Are your practicing the "eat the frog" technique (where you complete the hardest thing at the beginning of the day), or are you saving your most important task for when the afternoon slump kicks in?

"Some tasks need to be prioritized over others, so it’s essential to be consistent in revising your to-do list. As deadlines approach and new actions are added, ensuring that your list is up to date will save you from the hassle at a later, less convenient time," says Lovell. You can also revise as you go, so try to think of your to-do list as written in pencil rather than carved in stone. Okay?

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