The Amazing Power of the To-Do List

To-Do List

Everyone has a relationship with their to-do lists. With the best of intentions, it helps you to remember all the dribs and drabs of your responsibilities that suddenly multiply as you’re committing it to paper.

I admit I’ve gone for stretches of time trying to improve my senior moments by signaling my brain waves to recall everything I need to do. It works until it doesn’t.

I’ve seen to-do lists lost in the dark wash, crumbled to a ball and tossed into the nearest garbage can. One bad toss and your pup scores. Mine has! I’ve seen lists redone and re-done to perfection. I’ve seen lists that were way too illegible.  Lists hanging on the refrigerator, left on surfaces, thrown in bags, stuffed in wallets, taped to bathroom mirrors and front doors only to keep our chaos intact. Hey, whatever it takes.

So, what’s the worst that could happen when some to-dos become to-don’ts because they didn’t make it to the list?  Oh, that depends. Keep reading.

What Type of To-Do List Maker are You?

When it comes to list-making, I’ve seen it all. How you do it says something about how you like to store and retrieve information. Or maybe you were just in a hurry?

  • The scribbler who will grab anything in sight to scribble a note, message or phone number on (I’ve even seen notes on matchbooks and cereal boxes.)
  • The multi-lister who has lists of her lists (that on occasion pop-out of last year’s coat pocket).
  • The mnemonist who brags that she has it all in her head.
  • The touch screener- It’s all right here on their phone and they are lost without it.
  • The little note booker – So many little journals, that were all well-intended but started and stopped 15 too many times.
  • The tiny soldier where the lists line up in tidy rows.

And the list goes on. Since time management has been my area of expertise, I’ve consulted with dozens of people over the years on how to manage theirs.

Credit: Dustin Lee (Unsplash)

The To-Do List Went Kablooey

Though everyone is loyal to “their” method when they first start out, I soon begin to hear tales of woe about what they forgot to do because their system went kablooey. The stories range from annoying (“I didn’t write it down so I had to make a second trip to town to pick up my shoes from the repair shop”) to regrettable (“I didn’t make a thorough list, and I forgot to send one of my neighbors, an invitation to the event,”) to the catastrophic (“I made the necessary corrections for my boss on a speech he was giving, but we had so much going on I forgot to e-mail it to him. The only copy he had was the uncorrected one, and he was furious.”)

Most of my clients have the best intentions. They have read about the importance of to-do lists and they have them—in multiples: a list for work, a list for home, a list of things to pack for vacation, a list of errands for the weekend. One client had so many lists he had to keep lists of his lists!

Then there are the “scribblers.” They use napkins, backs of envelopes, small slips of paper, and Chinese take-out menus to write everything down. Small wonder they are often rummaging through pockets and rifling through papers trying to find the scrap of paper they need.

Second-only to your daily paper-based or online planner, the most important tool of time management is having a single, conveniently-kept to-do list. With this, you can maintain control of your life by keeping track of what you need to do. And the best thing is, writing it down means you don’t have to worry about forgetting it.

To-Do List
Credit: Ella Jardim (Unsplash)

Creating a New System: Your Notebook

The key to time management is to write down everything you need to do or keep track of. I’ve always used and recommended keeping a log of information in a notebook.

It’s one place, one ongoing list of the who, when and where of your life. Otherwise, you find yourself with the “multiple lists” problem. And while I speak of “one ongoing list,” I am well aware that most people will need an office notebook and a personal notebook so that you can keep track of two different streams of information. If you’re home-based and self-employed, you may be able to rely on a notebook that serves both purposes. Otherwise, simply pay attention to the advice here, and re-create it for the office.

Keep in mind that your list is going to range from “buy a replacement screen for window” to “send mom’s birthday card” to “investigate graduate degree programs”—anything and everything you need to take care of needs to be written down.

Some people swear by their cell phone or computer for list-making, but unless you’re one of those people where your laptop or wireless electronic device is practically attached to your fingers, I recommend a notebook system (spiral or not) because it’s easier to grab-and-run. 

Want to know my go-to store for notebooks? Walmart, of course! With such a huge selection of plain and pretty notebooks, I can choose one that suits my personal style. Whether you want a hardcover notebook, a spiral notebook, metallic raised and neon notebook or even one that’s more like a traditional journal or diary, you’ll find it at Walmart! I just love that their products are such a bargain even though the quality is excellent. They allow me to be mindful of my budget and save money when I can.

Credit: Dollar Tree

The Set-Up

Most people feel like kids on the first day of school when I send them to Walmart to choose a notebook that will be their “bible.” And why wouldn’t they? It feels good to start off a fresh notebook as a new and more organized you. So, spend some time on the Walmart website and find a notebook (or two) that suits your personality. This will be the notebook that will absorb all your thoughts, notes even conversations. You’ll keep a running list of everything you think of, and when you plan out your week you’ll sit down with this list to figure out what can be accomplished in the days ahead.

I suggest dating each page as you make entries to keep track of your information history. Especially if you’re starting a new project and you need to break the project down into steps, record contact information and names of people you speak to as well as conversations.

The Computerized To-Do List

Like the computerized daily planner, there are definite benefits to the to-do list on the computer.

This List:
  • Permits you to keep a running record of things you need to do without ever recopying.
  • Integrates the to-do list with your appointment calendar – sorting tasks by priority, category, status, or start date.
  • Provides you with the possibility of a neat and legible print-out of the list if you prefer to work from a paper to-do list.
  • Offers the option of using it as a family organizer to create to-do lists for various family members.
  • Provides alarm reminder options.

**Some of the most computer-savvy senior executives that I know find that handwriting the list makes it more “real” to them. Simply by writing it down, they remember the information.

To-Do List
Credit: Emma Matthews (Unsplash)

The Best To-Do List Apps for 2020

From notepads to digital to-do list apps right on our phones, one thing is for sure our world has changed drastically. As much as I love notebooks and keeping things on paper, some of you may appreciate digital assistance. Many apps have been designed specifically for task management and can improve your productivity. Although there are plenty of free and paid apps available, they all help you manage and finish your tasks more easily. These apps simplify your experience by combining certain subcategories well also reminding you of urgent tasks.

Since there are so many apps available, you may want to try a few to find one that works for you and the way you like to organize your tasks. Task management is highly personal, so you need to make sure that your to-do list app works for you. Here are some of the top to-do list apps available in 2020:

  • Todoist – balances powerful functionality with simplicity.
  • TickTick – has a built-in Pomodoro timer.
  • Microsoft To-Do – best for Microsoft users.
  • Google Tasks – best for Gmail users.
  • Asana – great for business owners and project management.

Planning Your To-Do List for the Week

General planning should be done weekly, and it involves working with both your planner and your notebook. Most people do it on Sunday night. Work-related tasks might be planned on Friday afternoon before leaving the office.

This is your opportunity to take a general look at the week and come to an understanding of what is possible and what isn’t. If you have many appointments and an all-day conference one week, this is not the time to start a new long-term project.

Your daily to-do list should be written in your calendar/planner. If you have opted for a computer-based system then add your lists on your computer.

Credit: Miesha Moriniere (Pexels)
Review your calendar for the upcoming week:
  1. Do any of your appointments take you to neighborhoods where you can easily do another task from your to-do list? An appointment at the dentist might take you right past a store your sister loves. With her birthday coming up, this may be the perfect time to stop in and see if they have a gift that is right for her.
  2. Review your appointments for the upcoming week. Do you need to make special preparations for any of them? And do you need to write these items on your to-do list? If you are not yet finished with a report needed for one of your business appointments, that task will then become a priority. Or if this is your week to bring a snack to the T-ball practice, you had better add the items you will need to your grocery list.
  3. After considering any extra blocks of time you have available, comb through your notebook. What tasks could you take care of during those blocks of time? Write them down.
  4. Set priorities based on importance, not urgency. And then take care of these things first. If you start working this way, you will begin to become free of crises, because you will have gotten done what you need to do in advance.
  5. When you review your main list, take the time to write down the steps involved in some of the more complex tasks. While “house hunt” is a huge undertaking. Things like “call realtor,” or “go online to check new listings” are manageable tasks. Interim deadlines on these small steps can keep your project moving forward.
  6. Don’t over schedule. Write down what you conservatively feel you will be able to accomplish. A couple of larger priority items and perhaps three or four other items on a list are generally what most people can expect to accomplish each day. That way you won’t feel overwhelmed. And you will have a feeling of accomplishment at being able to do what you set out to do for the day.
  7. Group similar activities so that you can complete the tasks in an organized fashion. For example, if you are going to the mall, scan through your list and note everything that you need to do while there. And there may be a convenient stop or two on the way to the mall, so write those errands down, too. This principle also pertains to desk-related tasks. If you need to write five business e-mails or three thank you notes, take care of them all at the same time.
  8. Set appointments with yourself. If you want to write the next Great American Novel or finally master that computer program you’ve been intending to investigate. Figure out how much time you can devote to it each week, and write it down as an unbreakable appointment. These appointments can also be for simply taking a walk. You’re reading this article for a reason. And I’m here to give you permission to put yourself and your activities as a new priority.

For more of these handy tips on getting organized, using the amazing power of the to-do list and managing your time, check out my book, Organize Your Life: Free Yourself from Clutter and Find More Personal Time.

To-Do Lists for Home Projects & Emergencies

In light of the Coronavirus, I suggest starting a to-do list for your home projects. This is especially worthwhile if you find yourself spending more time at home than usual; which is true of most people around the world currently. Whether you’re working from home or staying at home with the kids, you can make the most of this time by tackling home projects that you’ve been putting off.

Start by making a list of the home projects that you’ve been avoiding but have time for now. Then, prioritize these projects based on what’s most important and needs to get done as soon as possible. One of my top suggestions is to clean out your closets or redesign your closet completely. For more ideas on how to do this head over to my blog post for The Best Ideas for Organizing Your Closet. Once you’ve selected your project, make a list of what you need to do to get it done and then start working on it. Use this time to your advantage by being productive while staying at home – you’ll be glad you did!

Additionally, this time is a good reminder to be prepared for emergencies. My advice is not to panic but rather use the power of organization to feel prepared – this will help you remain calm in any situation. So, make a to-do list of items to buy for your medicine cabinet or your first aid kit. You can even make a list of warning signs to be aware of for you and your family or a list of what to do in case of emergency related to the virus. For more tips read my blog post on How to Respond to an Emergency like a Pro.

Do you use a notebook or an app for your to-do list?

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you when you click my links and make a purchase. However, this does not impact my opinion in any way. I only promote brands that I believe in and products that I use and love myself. I try my best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.


To-Do List

Comments 14

  1. I guess I am a “filofax” to do lister. I love my paper planner, and I order the “day on two pages” refills which allow me to track my calendar on the left and my to-do list on the right. This system has worked for me for more years than I can remember. It is easy to schedule clients from my cell phone without toggling, doesn’t require wifi, and has a bit of space in case I need to tuck a business card or other small piece of paper inside. I agree completely with your approach for reviewing the week and grouping activities. As you point out, these are good fundamentals for any system, paper or digital. This is a great time to set a new system in place and have the time you need to figure it out!

    1. Seana,

      I used The Day Planner for years and years and I loved it. Two pages a day just the way you described it. I can’t even remember why I stopped using it. Now I use part paper and part Iphone and it works for me.

  2. I use and love Todoist. And I know all too well what happens if I forget to add something – it doesn’t get done. For example, being in self-isolation this weekend, I had all kinds of time on my hands and had intended to start working on my income tax. It wasn’t on my list, so I forgot, but when I read your post, I remembered to add it, so it should get done soon. 🙂

    1. Just think of that bonus refund, Janet!
      Also, Don’t you think we remember the things that we want to do and conveniently forget the things that aren’t at the top of our list?

  3. I love lists- electronic and paper ones. I have my go to digital to do list and use the “2Do” app. I love it because it lets me advance plan for items to pop-up on a specific date. And it integrates well with my calendar. So I can plan the action items based on my scheduled commitments. It also allows me to color code and made different types of lists. So aside from the ongoing to do list, I have separate lists for example like Books Read or Books I Want to Read.

    However, there are times when I’m working on a specific project that I’ll develop a specific paper or Word doc list to manage the details of that project. I also love using sticky notes for quick reminders. Sometimes that info gets transferred to my electronic list and sometimes it’s not necessary.

    But you said it. This is such an individual preference. Having a system that works is key. And the key to having a system is knowing you can rely on it. Because it’s just too hard and unnecessary to keep everything in our heads.

    1. You’ve got this, Linda! I find that it’s not the big picture that can be difficult to keep track of. It’s all the details and the steps that create the big picture that’s challenging.

  4. This is a great article on the importance of a to-do list. You’re right, now is a wonderful time to make a to-do list of those home projects that you want to get done. I think the most important thing to consider is that every to-do list item needs to be scheduled into a calendar (whether it is digital or on paper). The task won’t get done unless you plan a time to do it!

    1. Hi Nancy,

      I agree with you that if you don’t schedule a to-do, it won’t get done. Sometimes it’s hard to schedule in advance. I try to at least take care of all my priorities. If something falls to the bottom of the list, it may not have needed to get done to begin with.

  5. Very detailed and informative! I’m definitely a notebook list maker. I would be lost without my daily planner! But I’m also guilty of being a “scribbler” when it comes to writing down random ideas for books.

    1. Hi Laurie,

      I love the notebook system and have used it for years. Now I use a combination of paper based and digital.

  6. I am VERY much a computer-based To-do-lister! I do have a Google calendar and for my lists I use One Note. Hardly know how I ever managed to oganize myself without it! 🙂

  7. Dear Ronni,
    Do you recommend writing the “To Do” list in my telephone log book, which is a Mead marbleized composition

    1. Hi Randi,

      You could put everything in that one composition book so that everything is in one place. You won’t lose your notes and it becomes your on going log of to do’s and information.

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