How To Create a Better To-Do List To Boost Your Productivity

Updated March 25, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
to-do list productivity

Do you hate to-do lists? If you don’t, you must be a weird kernel, and we should hang out more. But if you hate them, as most people do, why do you think that is? Is it because they never work or only work once in a blue moon? Is it because at the end of the day, when you look at the twenty unchecked items, your brain throbs with frustration?

The problem is that most people try to use to-do lists at times when they feel overwhelmed, which is probably the worst time to make a to-do list on the fly. And guess who’s overwhelmed lately? Everybody, all the freakin’ time. It feels like we’re all playing a giant game of whac-a-mole-only your entire life is on the line. What to do, then? Is there a way to save the to-do list? Is there a way for the to-do list to save us? Yes, there is. Hear me out.

“Focus on being productive instead of busy.”Tim Ferriss

stress overwhelmed

Why You Constantly Feel Overwhelmed

No one can deny that we live in a day and age when busyness is at an all-time high. I also believe that every single generation before us said the same thing. How’s that possible?

Busyness stretches as time expands and evolves in parallel with technology. When we invented computers and email became a thing, we became connected to our work 24/7. Once social media appeared and smartphones took over, we glued ourselves 24/7 to our family, friends, and the news.

While connectedness in itself is not a bad thing, have you ever done a frank analysis on how much of it is a genuinely fulfilling connection? I tested myself for a week by trying to document at the end of each day the amount of genuinely effective time I’ve spent while connected.

It turned out that only about 10% of it was a real connection. The rest was all bullshit; no joke.

Guess what? All of these technological advances increase our productivity and our effectiveness, but at the same time, they suck a vast amount of our precious time, and, because of that, we feel more stressed than ever.

Forget about having a kid, then another kid, buying a house, keeping a job, trying to run a business, staying healthy. I mean, when and how can you do it all? Should you even do it all is the more critical question?

When you look at everything in your life as a giant mishmash of “stuff” with no beginning and no end—just a massive, hairy ball of things you must do—it all turns into chaos.

That’s when a to-do list system comes into play.

I say “system” because a pure to-do list won’t do much to put an order in your chaos. You need a system or a process behind creating the to-do list in a manner that will achieve its intended purpose: to put an order in your madness.

“Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”Dale Carnegie

to-do list plan phone

Why a Simple To-Do List Won’t Work

Does this look familiar?

sample to-do list

Yep, it’s a to-do list. It’s nice and neat, waiting patiently to drive your life throughout the day to the climax of achievement.

But, wait a minute. Let me zoom out a little bit.

Oh, now that looks scary.

Although none of the items on the pink slips have to be unexpected, when you create your to-do list in a vacuum, not taking all of them into consideration, your list is doomed. Where between all the other items are you supposed to fit the items on the new list? How do they arrange in space and time? There’s no coordination. You are simply attempting to override the regular course of life with your to-do list.

Your to-do list cannot be a distraction from day-to-day life and all of the priorities that already existed.

That’s the problem with any to-do list system created on the fly, outside of the general context. It’s usually a knee-jerk reaction when too much crap piles up in a particular area of life, and you want to clean it all out of the way. You make a to-do list, and you expect the rest of the life to be put on hold while you gingerly navigate through your to-do list.

Sorry, but that’s not going to happen.

A to-do list created in that fashion won’t work most of the time. Once in a while, you might be lucky, and all of the stars in the Universe might align, and you’ll go through it. But that’s a rare occasion.

I’m not looking for that kind of haphazard results. I’m looking for a solid system where to-do lists connect to all aspects of life and align with each other.

So, let’s first look at what a to-do list system should do for you.

“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”Leo Babauta

to-do list planner

The Basics Behind a Solid To-Do List System

An effective to-do list system accomplishes the following:


Splits your life into functional areas

To start putting an order in chaos, you must first understand what the chaos is made of. That means listing all the areas of your life where you have things to do. You can structure it as a hierarchical list, although I don’t recommend making deep lists. It’s much easier to keep them flat.

At a minimum, think about: work, family, hobbies, friends. From there, continue to add more detail. Here is how I divide my life:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health & Wellness
  • Skills & Knowledge
  • Business & Career
  • Finances & Wealth
  • Contribution & Environment
  • Emotional Health
  • Fun & Entertainment

Determines the high-level goals for each functional area

Now that you have split your life into its functional parts, you need to think about the different goals and projects you have for each one of those areas.

That adds a critical element to your to-do lists: context.

Without context, to-do lists are difficult to prioritize, and when you don’t have priority, it’s impossible to put the first things first.

Brainstorm one to five major goals in each area of your life. Because this is not a vision creation exercise, don’t stretch your mind to audacious lifelong goals. Instead, keep it practical and only picture what you want to accomplish in those areas over the next 12 months.

If you have a vision or have created a vision board, it won’t be hard to borrow some of the goals you’ve already brainstormed.

Note that every area of your life will have:

  • Must-do items — these are one-time or repetitive things that you have to do no matter what. They could be administrative or general things that keep your life going.
  • Should-do items — these are not life-critical, but you know you should do them.
  • Nice-to-do items — these are the equivalent of “luxury” in every area of life.

Divides each goal into their related sub-tasks

Some projects require a one-time push, such as fixing your sink, and others require several rounds of stacked tasks, such as preparing to run a marathon. For each of your goals, you need to get to the smallest unit of work, which is the least complex task that you can take on to accomplish that goal.

You are basically either classifying each goal as a one-time project or as a series of milestones. That is important because milestones depend on one another and, therefore, have a natural priority order.


Tracks ongoing projects separately

For long-term projects that require time investment and multiple phases, such as building a house or starting a business, you need to have a separate master to-do list. You will still include the associated tasks in your daily and weekly to-do lists, but you need a way to track your progress and resources specifically for these significant projects.

Here are some examples of such projects that require consistent work throughout several years or months:

  • Getting a new job that requires a new set of skills
  • Obtaining a new degree
  • Building a business
  • Creating a blog
  • Buying a new house
  • Having a kid

Establishes the priority order of each set of tasks

Once you have all your projects and goals lined up, it’s time to arrange your tasks in their order of priority. There are two types of priorities:

A. Organic priority results from the natural order of things. For example, you can’t build the roof of a house before you have the foundation.

B. Judgment priority is the priority you give each task based on your judgment of their importance to your life.

To start, you need to prioritize the areas of your life first. I know this sounds impossible. After all, how can you prioritize things that must all be completed anyway? But, do your best.

To learn more about priority and how to prioritize things, I recommend studying the Eisenhower Priority Box.


Assigns a deadline or timeframe to each task

Once you have your tasks ordered by their importance, it’s time to assign two attributes:

A) Recurrence—these are tasks you must execute consistently under a particular recurring pattern. For example, your workout routine could be daily, while your house cleaning could be weekly. Date night with your spouse could be once every two weeks, and taking the family to the movies could be once a month.

B) Deadline—For projects with a finite timespan, such as writing a novel, getting a degree, or changing the roof on your house, you need a date for completion. If multiple, consecutive tasks lead to that project’s completion, each of them needs its deadline, dependent on each other.

At this point in your to-do list system creation, you have enough information to create a monthly to-do list for the month ahead and a weekly to-do list for the week ahead. Those two lists will include all the recurring tasks for those periods plus all the one-time tasks with a deadline falling in those exact times.


Tracks the execution of those tasks

Finally, one of the most important steps is to start executing the tasks on your to-do list in the order in which they appear. Because a week is a short enough period, you can track your tasks using a weekly to-do list.

However, I am a firm believer in taking everything to its smallest unit, which is why I recommend extracting a daily to-do list from your weekly or monthly ones. A daily to-do list is a lot more actionable.

Remember that this to-do list system is not just a pure checklist. Instead, it’s an accountability tool. It embodies the essence of all your life, and it takes your entire existence to a practical level. So, the more straightforward it is, the better for you.

If you track it only at a weekly level, you might fall prey to procrastination and push things toward the end of the week. If you spend the time to organize your weekly to-do list into daily priority lists, you won’t get derailed by feelings. Instead, you’ll have a to-do list to tell you exactly what to do and when.

“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.”Peter Drucker

notepad pen writing

Why You Should To-Do List Everything

As you can see, a properly designed to-do list is a lot more than just a grocery checklist. In fact, many people confuse checklists with to-do lists. Checklists are reminder systems that help you remember and check items off. In contrast, to-do lists give substance to checklists and create a bridge to your time-blocking.

The to-do list system begins with your self-reflection and your vision or dreams about your life and ends with a list of tasks you have to execute. Because this system captures everything in your life, you won’t encounter the issues I demonstrated above.

Every to-do list in every part of your life is well organized and aligned, and they all function like one synergetic organism.

That is why I insist that you must-to-do your entire life, not just the things you feel might fall through the cracks. To-do lists can provide you clarity and accountability in all areas and aspects of your life, and they will improve your productivity when used correctly.

Many people feel that they only need to-do lists for items that are hard to do or require additional motivation. That’s just a temporary patch. When you take everything in your life and combine them into the same to-do list system, you are now creating an all-encompassing accountability process.

to-do list system calendar

Best Practices for Creating a Great To-Do List

Here are some expert-backed to-do list best practices you should keep in mind when designing your to-do list system.


First things first.

Always make sure that you set up your top priorities at the beginning of the period. For the month, it’s the first week; for the week, it’s the first couple of days; and for the day, it’s the morning. The earlier, the better.



You should limit the critical priorities to one to three, ideally just one. When you focus, you accomplish more. Go all in one area and take the item off the list, then move to the next. The more you try to do them all at once, the less productive you’ll be in the long run.


Batch similar and straightforward things.

Sometimes you’ll have several easy tasks (either easy to execute or take a short time to complete). Those could be grouped and batched. This includes things such as making phone calls, paying bills, cleaning the house, and so on.


Leave breathing room in your daily to-do list.

As much as you’d like to believe that all you’ll do all day are the items on your to-do list, you’re wrong. There are always unexpected things that pop up and derail your plan. There will even be days when you’ll be so derailed that nothing on your to-do list will get done. Don’t worry. It happens to everyone. Over time, you’ll optimize your system; in the beginning, watch for times when you overpack your lists and can’t get through them.


Bake in buffer times.

When you switch from a task to another, leave a little extra time for rest and recovery. Allow yourself space to stretch, take a walk, drink a coffee. Make sure you allow for these transition times to happen naturally so you don’t burn out.


Maintain your to-do list.

There will be times when you’ll fly through your to-do list. Other times, you’ll barely scratch its surface. That means that at the end of each week, you need to analyze your progress and reflect. Upon analysis, realize if you need to scale down or up your to-do lists. It will never be perfect, but you want it also not to be too imperfect. Always try to adjust until you hit a sweet spot you are comfortable with.


Be honest about time.

We always tend to underestimate the time it takes us to complete a task. That’s why many times, the deadlines we set in our to-do lists prove to be unrealistic. Again, reflect and analyze. If you notice that you keep pushing your deadlines farther and farther, perhaps your judgment about time is faulty.

“Once you have mastered time, you will understand how true it is that most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year – and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade!”Tony Robbins

To-Do List Apps to The Rescue

Of course, you can always create your to-do list on a simple piece of paper. You can even get fancier than that and use an Excel spreadsheet or a Google Doc.

But, after doing it in every single way for the past ten years, I highly recommend you try out one of the tools out there designed specifically to organize your to-do system from the ground up.

Since this is not an article designed to review these apps, I will only list them below and, sometime shortly, I will post a complete review for each of them.

Here are the apps that I recommend, in order of my preference:

One word of warning when using apps: they all suffer from the well-known GIGO syndrome. That’s Garbage In, Garbage Out. The system is only as good as what you put in.

So, before jumping headfirst into one of these apps, please do your due diligence and organize your life as I described above. You’ll do yourself a huge favor and avoid frustration.

happy business woman laptop

Final Thoughts on Creating an Effective To-Do List

Putting order in your life is a critical prerequisite to your ability to navigate life. If everything around you is in disorder, including your thoughts and priorities, it will be hard, if not impossible, to get any sense of accomplishment. Maybe you’ll be lucky once or twice, but that’s not a sustainable system.

When you take life as a whole and boil it down to its essence, you can then focus and address those aspects that are critical to you in their proper order. Once you do that, you can start checking off items, and you’ll begin to see progress and get a sense of achievement. That will reduce your stress and improve your overall quality of life.

But this implies that you take a pro-active approach to life and do the work to take stock of where you are and where you want to be. It also means putting an order in what you find and then being deliberate about how you want to get there. An adequately designed to-do list system will do that for you.

I wish you the best of luck on this journey.

Also, what’s next on your to-do list? I hope it’s creating a better to-do list system!

Other To-Do List Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. What is your experience with using to-do lists at work and home?
  2. What are your biggest struggles when it comes to creating and using to-do lists?
  3. Are there any to-do list apps you highly recommend?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!



habits, organization, procrastination

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