Elements of the Perfect To-Do List

I love lists. I'm a list-maker for everything from my travel bucket list (Peru) to meals this week (pesto zoodles and salmon) and what I have to do today (this blog post). While the act of list-making can be cathartic or fun, often, it's necessary to get things done.

But not all lists are created equal. If you're the type of person that needs help organizing your priorities and to-dos, I've put together my 5 elements of the perfect to-do list:

1. Organize the list by the order you intend to complete it

Often when we're making a list, we write down everything we need to do as we think of them:

  1. Pick up prescription
  2. Get car washed
  3. Buy milk
  4. Mail thank-you notes

That's a great start to making sure you're organized. But to actually ensure that you'll get those tasks done, you need to organize them in the order you intend to do them. In this case, that means re-organizing the chores based on where the stores and locations are. Based on the route near my house, that means I would instead:

  1. Mail thank-you notes
  2. Pick up prescription
  3. Buy milk
  4. Get car washed

Now, my list is in order of where the stores appear on my errand route, ensuring I won't miss any of those errands. The same goes for any work-related activities. Though it may not be geographically bound, you have to order the list in the order you intend to complete it.

2. Break down bigger projects into smaller tasks

It can be daunting to have "Create social media marketing strategy" on your to-do list. Instead, break that down into smaller parts. To build a strategy, you have to:

  1. Craft consistent messaging for each of your products and solutions
  2. Understand what promotions have worked in the past
  3. Perform a followers and audience analysis

And so on. There's plenty more that needs to be done to create that strategy, but each one of those only needs to take a week or even a few days to cross off. The task doesn't seem so daunting any more.

3. Separate the must-dos with the nice-to-dos

At work, there's constantly new tasks that surface. Separate the absolute high priority items from the nice-to-haves, especially if some of those nice-to-haves don't have high impact. If this is your to-do list, for example:

  1. Put dishes away
  2. Vacuum family room
  3. Pack suitcase for trip tomorrow

You clearly have two items that must be done before you leave on your trip: Packing your suitcase and putting the dishes away. Would it be nice to have the family room vacuumed before you leave? Definitely. But it might not happen, and that's ok.

None of your to-do list items should be uncategorized—you should know exactly where each item fits into the prioritization scale, and when each task is due. Which leads me to my next one...

4. Each list item should have a due date

This is especially true of those big, mutli-faceted projects we talked about earlier in #2. Each list item should have a due date for completion, and you should stick to that due date based on the priority of that item. 

Remember that list above in #3? Without that critical information about your trip leaving tomorrow, we wouldn't have been able to prioritize that list. That's the same for work. If you're not sure when something absolutely needs to be done, ask. Or if it's not really clear that it needs to be done, now, then it's automatically a nice-to-have, not a must-do.

5. Make your list dynamic

Having one to-do list might work if you're doing something simple like household chores. But if you're working on something that takes hours or days, or with lots of moving parts and stakeholders, make a minimum of three lists: Must-Do, In Progress, and Nice-to-Have. 

I'm a huge fan of Trello.

I'm a huge fan of Trello.

For me, that materializes in self-contained "sprints" just like the ones my engineering team works on with agile. I have a to-do list for this week, one for next week, and one for in-progress, which allows me to capture my must-dos and nice-to-haves over a series of weeks.

You'll always have a stream of tasks to complete. That's why it's work, after all. Putting together an organized list to get it done is part of kicking butt at what you do.

Ready to tackle your to-dos? Get after it. 

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