How to write the perfect to-do list

Looking for freedom from that familiar nagging feeling? Here’s how to get stuff done without overwhelming yourself

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

In theory, the to-do list is the answer to all your productivity problems. First, write ‘write to-do list’ at the top, just so you have something to tick off immediately, then list all the things you need to get done. Work your way through, then bask in the glory of your achievement.

Except, for many of us, our lists are never-ending. “That’s why I don’t like to-do lists – because they become so overwhelming that they’re intimidating, and then you never want to look at them,” says Julie Morgenstern, an organising and productivity expert and the author of Time Management from the Inside Out. “They’re a place to capture tasks, but not execute tasks.”

Clare Evans, a time-management and productivity coach, agrees. She doesn’t like calling them ‘to-do lists’. “I refer to them as action lists,” she says. To create an effective action list, fill it with things on which you will truly take action; don’t create a giant inventory of random, and perhaps unimportant, tasks.

Keeping it under control

List a maximum of 10 tasks for the day. “Realistically, how much can you fit in? It might be five or six things, or only one. Identify the most important thing you need to do today and how long each task is going to take.” Know that you will almost certainly underestimate this. “Allocate time in the day when you’re going to do it,” says Clare.

How to start

She recommends tackling the task you are least looking forward to first. Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, and the co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, advises including “some easy things as well as the harder ones. You can start right away on a couple of easy ones, get those out of the way, and have a good feeling of making progress. But, given that willpower is limited, you should not squander it all on the easy ones – treat those as warm-ups.” 

Tasks should be specific and small, he says. “Rather than ‘clean out and paint garage’, maybe start with ‘Buy paint’ and ‘Fill one rubbish bag, and so on.”

How many lists?

Ideally, says Julie, you wouldn’t keep a to-do list at all – “Your to-dos should be integrated into your calendar immediately. This enables you to account for, and plan, your days realistically. For every to-do, how long is it going to take and when are you going to do it? Wednesday morning? Saturday afternoon? In this way, you don’t have a mere list, but a plan.”

That said, it is helpful to keep a master list somewhere, to capture every looming task, she says. Julie recommends sub-dividing this to avoid chaos or feeling overwhelmed. “It could be work versus home life. Within your work, it could be administrative, writing, marketing and team tasks.”

This should help with working through the items – once you have scheduled them. “We should execute by category – batch processing. Do all your financial stuff at one time, all your marketing stuff, all your people stuff. That’s a more efficient way to operate than switching back and forth.”


Once you have completed some tasks that you have been putting off, should you give yourself a reward? These can be useful, “if there are things you don’t like to do and need to motivate yourself to do,” says Julie but, for most tasks, the satisfaction of getting something done – and the freedom from that nagging feeling – is more than enough. 

“I think getting to-dos done is the reward for most people. People crave accomplishment.”

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