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8 Ways to Write a Better To-Do List and Increase Productivity

Jun 21, 2020 2:27 PM 6 min read

“To-do lists” as task managers aren’t a modern phenomenon. They’ve been around for centuries to increase productivity. Leonardo Da Vinci kept them too - except that his lists consisted of items like examining crossbows, drawing Milan and measuring the sun. The lists we keep are less...grand.

To Do or Not To Do?

The most disciplined among us make detailed lists and complete our to-dos and tick those checkboxes meticulously. On the other hand, some of us prefer to take things as they come, with the biggest semblance of planning being in the form of greying post-it notes stuck to the fridge.

But we live in a fast-paced age where there’s so much to do and keep up with. Moreover, due to the coronavirus pandemic, most of us are still working from home at least some days of the week. This means there’s no proper demarcation between the personal and the professional. We have office work, home work, personal work, fitness work, hobby this deluge of work and tasks, to-do lists are less of an option and more of a necessity now.


What To-Don’t 

Benjamin Franklin was probably the godfather of list-making. He practiced an elaborate divide-and-conquer approach, classifying his tasks under several “virtues” like Industry, Order, Frugality, Cleanliness, Tranquility etc. 

8 Ways to Write a Better To-Do List and Increase Productivity

That’s some dedication, yes, but often Mr. Franklin found that his tasks clashed with each other. For example, his goals to mend his own clothes and prepare his own meals (Frugality) often conflicted with other tasks like inventing bifocals or editing the American Declaration of Independence.

And therein lies the main problem with to-do lists.

There can never be too many tasks, but there are only so many tasks you can complete in a day or week - even without any distractions, which there will always be many of. By being too ambitious with your list, you risk making it too long and pretty soon you’re left with too many long-pending tasks and this will make you feel overwhelmed, dissatisfied and unproductive - which is the opposite of what a to-do list is supposed to do!

Of course, to-do lists can be extremely beneficial when used rightly. Lists can literally save lives (just ask Oskar Schindler). They can help you organise your day or week or month or even your year!

But how do we practice smart list-making and not lose our way in the madness?


8 Tips to To-Do Like a Pro


When a psychologist visited the US Pentagon to give a talk on time management, he asked the crowd to write down and describe their strategic approach in less than 25 words. He got only one response, and it was a great one: “First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.”

Not all tasks are created equal. That work-related assignment is obviously more pressing than finishing Season 5 of Veep. You need to know which tasks are more important and prioritise your time accordingly. Complete the assignment first; the binge-watching can wait.

Do It Like Ike: US President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower divided his tasks into four quadrants:

  • Urgent + Important (Do first)
  • Not Urgent + Important (Schedule)
  • Urgent + Not Important (Delegate)
  • Not Important + Not Urgent (Eliminate)


Too many tasks spoil the broth - simplicity is the key.

Don’t make your list longer than it needs to be! Or you’ll never get to finishing your to-dos and that’ll just demoralise you.

You could follow the 1-3-5 Rule, which stipulates that on any given work day, there is only enough time for 1 big task, 3 medium tasks, and 5 small tasks, so we should plan accordingly.

Of course, these numbers can change depending on your personality and profession. But ideally, have a rule that your to-do list for the day or week won’t be longer than X items. As in Point One, know what tasks are more important, and only jot them down. 


Pick a medium you’re comfortable with.

Speaking of jotting tasks down, some of us may be more comfortable writing down our lists on a notepad or diary. For others who haven’t held a pen since 2010, a good app would do the trick (on that note, here’s a list of 10 great productivity apps for Android and iOS). It doesn’t matter which medium or which app we prefer, as long as we’re comfortable with it.

Another Task On the Wall: If you’re a fan of the Kanban Board, then you probably have a big white/black board on your wall. Under this Japanese technique, three columns are drawn on the board - To Do, In Progress, and Done - and tasks are listed and shifted as and when. It’s a neat hack if you prefer visually and physically documenting your progress.

8 Ways to Write a Better To-Do List and Increase Productivity
Example of a Kanban Board.


Classify your lists.

It’s okay to have more than one to-do list. It’s actually better if you do. You could have one list for long-term goals and assignments, one for weekly to-dos, and another for your daily schedule. But make sure to get back to each of your lists from time to time to check your progress.


Break it down and get to the point.

Don’t be generic with the way you describe your tasks. “Work on book” is vague, and vague = intimidating. This may make you put off working on the task. Instead, break down the task. “Work on book” can be divided into “Complete Chapter One”, “Edit Page 40-80”, “Ask Publisher about edits” and so on.

And stay specific. “Save the environment” is a brilliant task, but it’s a little too much. Instead, say “Plant a tree at the local park” or “Read about what’s being done to fight ocean pollution” and so on. Don’t be like Woody Guthrie and add “Drink very scant if any”, “Wake up and fight” and “Don’t go lonesome” to your lists!

8 Ways to Write a Better To-Do List and Increase Productivity

Ideally, your tasks should conform to these three metrics:

  • They are physical actions.
  • You can finish them in one sitting.
  • They are tasks that only you can fulfill (i.e. Without depending on someone else’s time and schedule).


Make yourself accountable.

If you want, you could make your to-do list public (like paste it on the fridge or hall where everyone can track your progress) or share it with your closest friend. This will make you fear not completing your tasks, because then someone else besides you will know that you slacked off.


Time it.

As an extension of Point Two: to better manage your time, manage your time. Set aside a definitive time period for certain tasks beforehand and follow through. Also, a productivity hack could be to complete the tasks that are easy and not very time-consuming as early as possible so that you can cross off all these tasks early in the day and get to the work that will actually take time and effort.


Be flexible.

Don't go overboard and schedule every single minute of your day. For one, there will always be distractions and unforeseen events. And for another, even if the distractions were accounted for, you don’t want to burnout while adhering to your to-do list.

Pertaining to Pomodoro: One popular time-management technique is the Pomodoro Method. It works like this: You should break down your workload and complete it in chunks or intervals (AKA “chunking”) separated by breaks. So, you should work for 25 minutes straight (=one Pomodoro), then take a 5-10 minutes-long break, and then work for another 25 minutes. As you complete more Pomodori, your breaks should get slightly longer too.

Basically, set aside some time in the day for relaxing - take a walk, do gardening, do yoga! Or at least set aside some “buffer time” to compensate for any unpredictability in your daily regime.


Above all...

Above all, don’t beat yourself up. Even Mr. Franklin found it difficult to keep up with his to-dos - and he was a literal polymath! You in the 21st century need to deal with work, time, money, relationships, the prospect of environmental catastrophe, and a literal pandemic. It’s okay to have a few unticked boxes. You’ll get to them soon.


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