How to make an effective to-do list

Far before Buzzfeed popularized the listicle, humanity has been obsessed with lists. Whether it’s Leonardo Da Vinci (Calculate the measurements of Milan and suburbs) or Johnny Cash (Eat and Not eat too much), the one art we’ve carried through the ages is jotting down ideas, thoughts, and observations down on pieces of paper. 

Johnny Cash had a pretty straightforward to-do list

In 2009, novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco curated a history of the list exhibition at the Louvre and attempted to explain why as a people, human beings like lists so much. 

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.” 

So, the next time someone tries to pick on you for bringing out the organizer for making a list, tell them they’re heckling not just your shopping list for the week but also a cultural achievement (take that, Grandma!).

So, lists are great and I bet you agree too, which is why you’re reading this piece (and I love you for it) but how can they help in the larger scheme of things? How can they help you feel less overwhelmed, more productive or just generally in control of what’s going on around you?

Well, as Umberto Eco said, humans use lists to face infinity and make sense of what’s going on around them. Lists can help us make profound connections both with ourselves and the world around us. In fact, there was even a short-lived social media network for list lovers – li.st – by B.J. Novak, The Office actor and writer. 

Being a diehard fan of lists of all kinds, there might be a little quibble if I had to pick just two to talk about, but if you were to use two to manage your life, and develop a more mindful living I’d recommend a to-do list and a gratitude list. You’re free to come up with your own style, but for what it’s worth, here’s how I go about it.

The to-do list

When you have a looming goal that’s keeping you up at night, a to-do list can be your knight in shining armor. A well-thought-out, realistic to-do list can help you manage your time effectively so that you remain productive without feeling overwhelmed. It gives you time in the day for work but also time to unwind and spend time on everything you want to do. Behold the power of a to-do list!

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about making a to-do list and let’s learn together, anew:

  • Make a general resolutions list but don’t use it as a to-do list. A general resolutions list is a list of all your stretch goals. It’s not an implementation plan, these are those high-level goals that you set for yourself; this is a good list to keep around so you know what you’re working towards but it’s a not-so-good list to use on an everyday basis.
  • Make a to-do list every day. Preferably in the evening, before you go to bed. This way, you don’t waste time the next morning, trying to figure out what to do. 
  • Every task on your to-do list has to be S.M.A.R.T. Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Realistic. based on a Timeline. A non-S.M.A.R.T goal is “Come up with social media campaign ideas” but a S.M.A.R.T goal is “Come up with 2 ideas for a Facebook campaign for the end of the day”.
  • Your to-do list should be in the order of priority. It’s always gratifying to cross off things at the beginning of the day so you can bask in the glow of jobs well done but you shouldn’t back-stack the second half of your day with the tough tasks. Order tasks by priority so you spend the bulk of your day on the truly difficult ones (“Clean living room”) and not the easy ones (“Eat breakfast”).
  • Use a reward strategy to get through some of the more arduous ones. Nobody likes adulting, especially adults. And a large, unavoidable part of adulting is to make and get through our to-do lists. So why not try pairing some of the more difficult tasks with the things that you enjoy? Yes, you don’t like adding up how much you’ve spent this month but hey, you could do it while getting a pedicure. You don’t want to sort through your laundry but maybe you could listen to your favorite album while you do it. When it comes to rewards, even the smallest ones can create that feel-good effect.

Now that we’ve had the generic how-to, let’s now look at where to create your to-do. Most of the joy of a to-do list is in its creation – I don’t know about you but it gives me great satisfaction to write something down on a piece of paper and strike it off. Asana has unicorns that canter across your screen, leaving a rainbow trail in their wake, but it just can’t compare to the joy of a pen and paper list all struck out.

However, I recognize the usefulness of a to-do list that you can carry everywhere in your pocket so I’ve succumbed to the lure of to-do apps. Here are a few recommendations:

  • A physical planner like this one or this one, if you like to maintain a physical record of your tasks. I personally like the former because it’s slim and fits in everywhere I want it to. If you’re more artistically inclined, you can make your own planner aka the bullet journal. As a person who’s sought after while playing Pictionary for my pathetic drawing skills, I decided to just stick to the laid out planners.
  • Trello, Asana, Any.do – If you’re a to-do nerd like me, you’ve probably already worked your way through the popular ones. I’ll just tell you what I like using and why: I like using Asana with my email. Why? Asana has a clean list approach (check) and it allows me to organize everything into mini projects with timelines attached (check). But it also has a handy “convert your email into tasks” which I love because it’s so immediate and convenient. 

Trello can do the same thing as well so really it’s a matter of preference. Any.do is my favorite for my phone because it stays in your phone’s notification drawer, reminding you of all the things you haven’t done yet. Always a great start to the day.

The gratitude list

To-do lists are great but they’re also a list of things you have to do and tend to engender more panic rather than the warm fuzzies. For the warm fuzzies, I look to my gratitude list.

This is a list I make every day of the things that I’m grateful for, the events that went well. It could be anything as small as “For my nose that is straight and keeps my glasses against my eyes” to “For the teammate who took the screenshots so I wouldn’t have to”. You could even fork this into a “Well done” list where you just jot down everything you did over the course of the day so you can bask in the glow of a good day. 

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

A gratitude list is something that can help you take stock of everything happening around you, something that can help you slow down every day and be more mindful about the world. For instance, today, I’m grateful for you, dear reader, for making it to the end of my post and validating my life’s purpose. Let me know if I made yours?