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10 Steps to the Perfect “To Do” List

Having never been detail-oriented, let alone organizationally gifted, I’ve always had a hard time following to-do lists. Still, I have things I want to accomplish, so I’ve made lists all my life. Usually they collect on my desk with other scraps of paper until I throw them out, either accidentally or on purpose.

But this year, something shifted for me. I changed the way I make my to-do list and found that I actually started using it.

What a difference! Gone is the feeling that I’m forgetting something important or that something’s hanging over my head; I know what’s coming up, and what’s expected of me. This must be how people who are organized feel all the time.

I took what I did and turned it into steps that can be followed. If you’re organizationally challenged like me, maybe you’ll find the following useful.

Planning Your To-Do List

1. Set time aside to make your list. Schedule a block of at least 30 minutes if possible. You’ll need access to a calendar that shows holidays.

Actually do this. Think about when you’ll make your list, and plan to do it then. Or do it right now. Get a piece of paper or open a file on your computer.

2. At list-making time, don’t just start writing. Instead, think about what you want to accomplish over the next several months, say three or four — either a quarter or a third of a year.

It may seem overwhelming to plan that far into the future, but for me, thinking in a longer chunk of time is actually kind of soothing. I’d never tried it before, and I was surprised to find how much better it works for me than planning just a day or a week at a time.

Longer-range planning provides a context for the details. If you’re a big-picture thinker, you’ll appreciate this.

3. Create a visual format for your list that makes sense to you. I made one for myself with a box for each upcoming month stacked vertically on the left side, and space on the right for useful information that I’ll need to have handy for more than one month.

Here’s a link to a PDF file that shows what it looks like:

Sample To-Do List

I can throw to-do’s into the box for a particular month and they’ll get done in that month, but I don’t have to do them in any particular order. This combination of structure and freedom works well for me.

Adding To-Do’s to Your List

4. Start by adding to-do’s with hard deadlines; you’ll instantly know where to put them, and they’ll anchor the rest of your list. I write mine in bold so they stand out. I have a monthly deadline for my advertising, and I teach a class on the 2nd Thursday of each month.

5. Next, write down things that need to happen to support those activities. They may need to happen a month or two ahead of time, in the same month as the event, and/or after the event is over.

6. (Optional) Schedule your vacation, or at least a small getaway. Write it in where it works for you, avoiding deadlines and far enough in the future that you can plan for it if necessary.

7. Now it’s time to schedule other things you want to do that you need to set dates for, such as hosting a party or applying for school.

For me, these are usually workshops, which I like to offer a certain number of times a year. I select dates for them that don’t coincide with major holidays, family birthdays or my own vacation. The dates I choose go in bold because they’re now hard deadlines.

Everything I need to do for each workshop, from conception to advertising to following up with participants afterward, can now be scheduled, too.

8. At this point you can see at a glance which months have more to-do’s assigned to them than others, so this is a good time to schedule the following:

  • Those important-but-not-urgent activities that are a drag but that definitely need doing (e.g., “Review insurance coverage and upgrade if necessary”),
  • Those irritating things that are neither important nor urgent but that take up your mental energy just because they’re not done (e.g., “Get rid of extra lumber from renovation”).

Spread these out among your months or schedule them to happen all on the same day; you know what works best for you. But don’t leave them unscheduled. Make sure they appear somewhere on your list.

What to Include in Your List

My list is super work-oriented, but that’s just me. Your list might focus on wedding or baby stuff, financial planning, household repairs, etc. Make the list suit your goals.

Keep it as sparse as possible. Only include items that:

a. Have a hard deadline

b. Are required to support your deadline items, and/or

c. Might not get done unless you plan for them.

I go to the gym three times a week as part of my normal routine. Since I don’t need a reminder to follow routine, putting those trips on my to-do list would create unnecessary clutter. On the other hand, being relatively new to social media, I have to remind myself to post, tweet and update regularly. So those go on my list for the time being.

For someone else, it might be the opposite; they may be new to working out and want to plan their trips to the gym, but signing in to Facebook could be routine for them. Their to-do list would include gym workouts but not Facebook posts.

Using Your To-Do List

9. Now that your list is done, it’s time to figure out how you’d like to use it. I look at my list every time I find myself wondering what to do next. You might review your list at the beginning or end of each week, or randomly, to find out if you’re on track.

10. Test it. Change your format or the way you use your list to make sure it works well for you. Your to-do list should be there for you, not the other way around. If the list itself has become a to-do, it’s not working for you.

Advising others on how to make an effective to-do list is something I never thought I’d do. But this way of doing it really works for me, and I hope it works for you, too. Please let me know how it goes.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "10 Steps to the Perfect “To Do” List"

  • jwynnyk
    April 14, 2012 - 10:01 am Reply

    I have put reading this and your last week’s post on my to-do list!

    In all seriousness, I have been relying on lists after my house was burglarized – tasks were falling to the wayside and people were starting to notice. I created a master list this morning (your blog post is perfectly-timed), just to clear my brain and prioritize some major items that I have put off for a while. I’ve never been a list-person, but lately I have come to realize that I could become one.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 14, 2012 - 12:32 pm Reply

      Thank you for your comment! Any list that includes reading my blog is a good list, in my opinion. 😉

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