How To Create an Effective Task List for Productivity

Here’s why some task lists aren’t effective and how you can create one that encourages productivity

If you’re like most Americans these days, you are juggling multiple roles, jobs, and tasks on any given day.  We are busy.  There are a lot of external expectations of us, internal expectations that we put on ourselves, and more options for how to perform any given task than we’ve ever had before.

Using a productivity system to get things done can be the difference between chaos and peace.  It’s the difference between struggling to juggle everything and high performance.  A method to the madness organizes the madness into something positive and productive.

With polls and studies telling us that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world (right up there with Greece), we need practical help managing the pressures in our daily lives.

Enter the task list.  To-Do lists haven’t always possessed the best connotations.  They’ve been associated with self-critical incompetence or failure of accomplishment, rendering it counterproductive.

Let’s address those issues, but first, let’s look at why the to-do list is still around and how high performers use them.

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Why Use a To-Do List

1. Top business leaders do.

Time published an article called 35 Business Leaders Share Their Daily Habits and at least seven of the habits are related to a daily task list.

2. The most productive people in the world do.

In another article What Do Super-Productive People that Others Don’t?  These 3 Things, According to an MIT Productivity Test, the MOST productive people effectively use a to-do list.

3. It can make us healthier

Psychologists and surgeons agree that list-making can make us healthier by reducing our anxiety, increasing our self-esteem, and improving our focus, among other things.

So Why Aren’t They Always Effective?

The short answer is that we’re not using them correctly.  The reason they are mentioned in the resources above is that high performers have learned how to make their task list serve them.  Not the other way around.

With the power to help you accomplish more in less time–and not just more but also the most important things–to reduce your stress and anxiety, you need to know how to create a to-do list and use one effectively.  In order to do so, avoid these mistakes.

It’s too long

This mistake is virtually in every article about why to-do lists don’t work.  This tells us how universally discouraging it is to see a list in front of us that can’t possibly get done in a day. 

We create these long lists because we treat it like a brain dump of several lists in one.  It’s a productivity killer.

It’s not specific enough

When you put sweeping, general tasks on your task list, your brain has to stop and take time to break it down, and figure out subtasks even before starting.  If this is happening every time you look at your list, it’s not serving you.

It’s more efficient to break down the tasks once.  Your to-do list should be broken down into specific, manageable tasks that don’t overwhelm you.

Not scheduling tasks

You have a list of what needs to be done, but no real plan for completing those tasks because they aren’t part of your schedule yet.  

You are much more likely to complete something on your list when it’s in your calendar or schedule. Estimate the task duration and assign a block of time for it.

Putting the wrong things on the list

Sometimes we feel ambitious and try to squeeze everything on the same list.  This is not your bucket list, shopping list, or even your goal list.  Of course, some of us can overdo it with multiple lists but some of us may find the need for several lists.

Your task list is for things that you can accomplish in the immediate future, usually that same day or the next.

Tips for Crafting an Effective Task List

Here’s how to get the most out of your task list.

Brain dump first

There is a place for the brain dump, but it’s not the last step of creating a task list.  Put everything in your head on paper. This includes your big goals, like writing a book, for example.

Prioritize your top 1-3 things for that day

Consider the tasks that would deem the day successful once you accomplish them.  This gives you laser focus to hone in on what matters most to you. 

Create a smaller “could do” or “nice to do” list from your brain dump for secondary priorities after the important ones are done.

Keep it simple

Your to-do list shouldn’t be a long one. It should be do-able in one day.  This is why it’s important to whittle it down to only your most important tasks for the day.

Be specific

Think through the logical order of the steps you need to accomplish the task.  Break down complex items into smaller, bite-sized tasks.  Add details to each so you can understand what needs to happen.

Schedule each task in your calendar

This is crucial. If your task list is going to turn into an accomplishment list, you have to plan for it’s completion.  Estimate how much time each task needs, and immediately block out that amount of time to get it done.

Plan for some leeway. For example, 15 minutes between tasks in case a meeting goes over.

Schedule breaks and take them

This little trick is on every list of high performing habits.  The most productive and effective leaders do this.

Take a look at the popular Pomodoro Technique of scheduling 25 minutes on a task and then five minutes off.  After four rounds of this, take a 15-20 minute break.

Markers of an Effective Task List

Here’s how you know you’re on the right track.

An effective task list will:

  • Help you prioritize
  • Break down large tasks
  • Give guidance, not dread
  • Provide deadlines
  • Be do-able in one day
  • Be limited to just 3-5 tasks a day
  • Be revisited and revised throughout the day
  • Be scannable and easily understood

How to Make Your To-Do List More Effective

You’ve learned how to write a great task list, but here are some advanced tips used by the high performers to help you get the most out of your list.

  1. Start by celebrating and writing out what you got done yesterday
  2. Consider having 3 lists for the day: master list, weekly project list, high impact task list (HIT)
  3. Make a daily list and cut it in half.
  4. Add specific times and places (write paper 4-6 PM at Starbucks)
  5. Identify tasks that don’t ever get done and figure out why.  
  6. Assign a task to address what’s blocking you from completing specific tasks.
  7. Make the list shareable or public for accountability.

There is certainly no shortage of information or opinions out there on how to be productive.  Our advice? Experiment!

Start with these tips and tweak them as you go.  Remember, the purpose of an effective task list is to serve YOU.  If it’s adding stress or falling to the wayside, it’s not serving you.

An effective task list will reduce your anxiety, add structure to your day, and provide you with a solid plan to accomplish what matters most to you.

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