How to Create an Effective To-Do List

Rather than creating a catch-all list, try these strategies.


Ever sit down to write a to-do list and realize you can’t stop?

The problem with to-do lists is they become a “catch all” for your career, life, home, and health. It’s as if you were waving around a huge butterfly net with really tiny holes in it. The small items don’t escape.

That means you end up jotting down everything that pops into your head. You don’t want to lose any of it. Even if you should.

So it’s easy to fill two full pages with stuff. You kind of get on a roll, right?

Another problem: Creating a big long list starts to feel productive. It’s almost as if you’re actually getting started on a few of these items simply by capturing the need to do them.

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And finally, the act of writing a list can be so satisfying you don’t feel an immediate need to get started on No. 1. Instead, you push back from the table, place the pencil on the pad, and walk away with pride on what you just created.

Here are some ways to create an actionable and smart to-do list:

Keep it short. Can you accomplish two important tasks each day? How does that compare to your current success rate? A long to-do list (two pages ore more) is intimidating. And it’s easy to see all of the items as having equal value, when they probably don’t. So try capping your list at 10 important items each week.

Have an active list and a waiting list. Try keeping two lists. One that includes the important and urgent items, and a separate list that includes other items, those that are less important and less urgent. If they become more important or urgent, you can move them over. Or maybe you’ll never move them over, but at least they’ve been identified, right?

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Focus on important first. Especially if you’re in an active job search, differentiate between productive tasks and satisfying time wasters. Choosing 10 target companies is better than searching the job boards for another 10 jobs.

Use action words. Sometimes we create boring to-do lists, ones that include items like “resume” or “networking.” But what if you had some fun with your to-do list? What if you made it more upbeat and fun? What if, instead of “resume”, you wrote, “Create an awesome resume to tell my career story.

Be specific. The more specific you can be, the better. Instead of “networking,” write: “Identify five new networking events for May and choose five people at each event to meet for coffee the following week. More specific equals more actionable and more measurable. It‘s easier to craft a plan of action when you know precisely what you’re trying to accomplish.

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Lean on technology. Rather than writing on old-fashioned paper, try the task function in Outlook or a cool application like Evernote, which allows you to save audio or text notes on your smart phone and computer. You can then categorize and tag them to stay better organized. And at the end of the week, you won’t have to spend an hour re-writing your old list into a new one.

Share it with others. If you have an accountability group for your job search or career goals, share your list with the group. Or tell your kids, spouse, pastor, or good friend. A hidden or private list is too easy to avoid. Put it on the refrigerator or on the back door so it stays in your line of sight, and so others can ask, “How’s your new awesome resume coming along?”

Tie in the larger reward. This isn’t about putting a dollar bill in a jar for every task completed. It’s about reminding yourself why the task is important, why it’s there in the first place. If your larger goal is to establish yourself in a new career where you can find happiness at work, you need to include this somewhere. For example, give the list a theme each week.

So if you suffer from bad to-do lists and if you find yourself writing and re-writing the same tasks each week, give these suggestions a try. You may find you become more efficient or effective, giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed.

What ideas do you have for a more actionable to-do list?

Tim Tyrell-Smith is founder of Tim's Strategy, a site that helps professionals succeed in job search, career and life strategy. Follow Tim on Twitter, @TimsStrategy, and share his 30 Ideas Book with job-seeking friends.


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