To-Do Lists

The Key to Efficiency

How to write a prioritized To Do List,
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.

Do you often feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, or do you find yourself missing deadlines? Or do you sometimes just forget to do something important, so that people have to chase you to get work done?

All of these are symptoms of not keeping a proper "To-Do List." To-Do Lists are prioritized lists of all the tasks that you need to carry out. They list everything that you have to do, with the most important tasks at the top of the list, and the least important tasks at the bottom.

By keeping such a list, you make sure that your tasks are written down all in one place so you don't forget anything important. And by prioritizing tasks, you plan the order in which you'll do them, so that you can tell what needs your immediate attention, and what you can leave until later.

To-Do Lists are essential if you're going to beat work overload. When you don't use them effectively, you'll appear unfocused and unreliable to the people around you. When you do use them effectively, you'll be much better organized, and you'll be much more reliable. You'll experience less stress, safe in the knowledge that you haven't forgotten anything important. More than this, if you prioritize intelligently, you'll focus your time and energy on high value activities, which will mean that you're more productive, and more valuable to your team.

Keeping a properly structured and thought-out list sounds simple enough. But it can be surprising how many people fail to use To-Do Lists at all, never mind use them effectively. In fact, it's often when people start to use them effectively and sensibly that they make their first personal productivity breakthroughs, and start making a success of their careers.

Preparing a To-Do List

Start by downloading our free template. (Writing your list down on paper or putting it into a document is the simplest and easiest way to start using a To-Do List.) Then follow these steps:

Step 1:

Write down all of the tasks that you need to complete. If they're large tasks, break out the first action step, and write this down with the larger task. (Ideally, tasks or action steps should take no longer than 1-2 hours to complete.)

Note:

You may find it easier to compile several lists (covering personal, study, and workplace, for example). Try different approaches and use the best for your own situation.

Step 2:

Run through these tasks allocating priorities from A (very important, or very urgent) to F (unimportant, or not at all urgent).

If too many tasks have a high priority, run through the list again and demote the less important ones. Once you have done this, rewrite the list in priority order.

Using Your To-Do List

To use your list, simply work your way through it in order, dealing with the A priority tasks first, then the Bs, then the Cs, and so on. As you complete tasks, tick them off or strike them through.

What you put on your list and how you use it will depend on your situation. For instance, if you're in a sales-type role, a good way to motivate yourself is to keep your list relatively short, and aim to complete it every day.

But in you're in an operational role, or if tasks are large or dependent on too many other people, then it may be better to focus on a longer-term list, and "chip away" at it day-by-day.

Many people find it helpful to spend, say, 10 minutes at the end of the day, organizing tasks on their list for the next day.

Tip:

Once you're comfortable using To-Do Lists, you can start differentiating between urgency and importance.

Using Software

Although using a paper list is an easy way to get started using To-Do Lists, software-based approaches can be more efficient in spite of the learning curve. These can remind you of events or tasks that will soon be overdue, they can also be synchronized with your phone or email, and they can be shared with others on your team, if you're collaborating on a project.

There are many time management software programs available. At a simple level, you can use MSWord or MSExcel to manage your lists. Some versions of Microsoft Outlook, and other email services such as Gmail, have task lists and To-Do Lists as standard features. Remember the Milk is another popular online task management tool that will sync with your smartphone, PDA, or email account. It can even show you where your tasks are on a map. Other similar services include Todoist and Toodledo.

One of the biggest advantages to using a software-based approach to manage your list is that you can update it easily. For example, instead of scratching off tasks and rewriting the list every day, software allows you to move and prioritize tasks quickly.

Tip:

All of us think, plan and work differently. A program that works well for a colleague might not work well for you simply because you learn and think in your own way. This is why it's useful to research and try several different ways of compiling your list before deciding on a single system.

Examples

To-Do Lists can help you stay on top of important projects and piles of undone tasks or decisions.

For instance, imagine you're heading a team that's working on a large, complex project. There are so many tasks to do, and so many people doing them, that staying on top of it all seems overwhelming.

You can use a To-Do List in this situation to help stay organized. You can structure your list by team member, writing out tasks and deadlines for every person on the project. Each day as you write out your own tasks that need completion, you can also check your Team To-Do List to see who's working on what, and if anything is due in that day. You can also include other tasks that you need to complete as part of your job.

Or, imagine you're in a sales role and have a long list of people who you need to talk to. You write out a list of everyone you need to call and every client you need to see, and start prioritizing.

You know that one client really keen on your product and is ready to buy, so you prioritize them with an "A" - this is a prospect that's really worth focusing on. Conversely, you know that another prospect is playing you off against several competitors, meaning that the you'll make less profit, and that there's a reasonable chance that you won't get the business. You prioritize this person with a "D". It's worth making some effort here, but you should focus most of your attention on better prospects.

Tip:

To-Do Lists are particularly useful when you have a small number of tasks that you need to complete. However, they can become cumbersome when you have too many items on them, or when you need to progress multiple projects. At this stage, it's worth starting to use Action Programs  , which are designed to manage more complex situations reliably.

Key Points

To be well organized in the workplace, you need to be using To-Do Lists or Action Programs. By using them, you will ensure that:

  • You remember to carry out all necessary tasks.
  • You tackle the most important jobs first, and don't waste time on trivial tasks.
  • You don't get stressed by a large number of unimportant jobs.

To draw up a Prioritized To-Do List, download our template and use it to list all of the tasks that you must carry out.

Mark the importance of the task next to it, with a priority from A (very important) to F (unimportant). Redraft the list into this order of importance. Then carry out the jobs at the top of the list first. These are the most important, most beneficial tasks to complete.

You can also use software-based approaches to manage your list. You can often access these from anywhere, and they can often be synced with your Smartphone or PDA.

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Comments (10)
  • Sarah.P wrote This week
    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for that - I'll take a look!
  • Richard wrote This week
    To-do-lists are great but to take it one step further, add a time next to each task and time yourself to carry out that task, check this out that explains this methods: http://www.theactiongenerator.co.uk
  • rsunev wrote This month
    One of my favorite blogs is Paula Rizzo's ListProducer.com which has a lot of helpful tips on being more productive using lists, she is also the author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Successful and Less Stressed by Paula Rizzo and Julie Morgenstern(Dec 22, 2014)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Bianca,
    Sorry you had trouble with the imbedded video. Here is the link to our video resources (you can find it on the "Other Resources" tab from the main menu): http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/main/videos.php The To-Do Lists one is listed in the Time Management section.

    Hope you have success this way. Let me know if you are still having difficulty accessing them.

    Dianna
  • robertsb wrote Over a month ago
    Hello. The article was great. I wanted to watch the video, but the link would disappear and leave a blank space as soon as the whole article loaded. Does anyone have the video link separately?
    Thanks,
    Bianca
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Action Programs like the one you describe and learned through the Bite Sized Training really are fantastic!!! I can't say enough good things about them and I don't think I've ever heard anything but glowing praise from people who have tried the method.

    Like you say, To-Do lists are very much a part of everyone's approach to time management. I think we'd be hard pressed to find someone who has never used such a list. The problem is that the list method itself isn't very effective unless it has some additional structure - and the system you have put together does that perfectly.

    Let us know if you try new things or find improvements to the system - we can always use good, practical tips!

    Enjoy your new productivity!

    Dianna
  • aia2011 wrote Over a month ago
    All my life I have been a "To-Do List" fan. I do this type of lists to remember what I need to do daily at work, but also in my personal life. I even use a "To-Do List" for cleaning. I guess it might give me a sense of accomplishment when I can cross out the "Vacuum" item.
    However, regular "To-Do Lists" were not very effective for me at work.

    Going through one of the bite-sized trainings that MindTools offers (Time Management), I came across a method to organize my work and my "to-do" tasks.

    I started to use a simple excel spreadsheet. In the first tab of this document, I list all my projects and for each project I write the next action, that is, what is the next big task to accomplish. Each project has a different background color. The second tab has list the different small tasks for that "next actions" with the same background colors than the listed projects. The second tab has also a due date for each task and indicates who is the owner of the task (myself or if it is delegated). After the small tasks from the second tab are completed for a specific project, I go back to my first tab to update the "Next Action" for the project that later will be divided into little tasks in my second tab.

    I have to thank MindTools for this great idea that helps me not only to keep track of my work, but to monitor the status of all my projects.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at:
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... HTE_05.php

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!

    Thanks

    James
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Don

    I really had to smile at your comment of your wife shaking her head - I shake my head at myself!! A prioritised to-do list does wonders for me as well and I get a huge feeling of accomplishment when I tick off item by item. It also gives me peace of mind because I know I won't forget anything since it's listed.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    This tool is my life saver. I tried for years to make sense of my list of things to do but invariably I'd only get finished the stuff that I wanted to do. Others things would sit for weeks or even months. With a list that is prioritized I just work my way down and it gives me just the amount of structure and discipline I was lacking on my own. Funny how the smallest changes can make a big difference. I mean really, the items on the list are the same the order is just different. My wife just shakes her head but at least things get done now.

    Don

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