Ever feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, with a to do list a year long? Of course you have. We’ve all felt that way at one point or another. At least 60% of Americans report feeling so busy that they don’t have time to enjoy life. And a majority say they try to do multiple things at once, just to cope.
Chances are, you have a lot of stuff to do too. To manage it all, you turn to a to do list.
But if you’re like most people, your to do list turns into a running list of every thought, errand, and reminder that pops into your brain. Rather than boosting your productivity, the list that’s supposed to be helping you only overwhelms you.
Fortunately, a good to do list template helps bring order to the chaos. Studies have shown that our brains perform better with ordered lists. But that doesn’t mean any old to do list will suit you. Your life isn’t like everyone else’s, and neither is your brain.
That’s why we’ve put together these to do list templates as a guide, but not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Think of them as training wheels. Pick the one that fits your routine best, modify it as necessary, and tinker with it to find what helps you accomplish your daily goals. Here’s how to make that happen.
“The list is the origin of culture. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”
If all to do lists worked simply because you wrote them down, none of us would have any productivity issues. We could plop ourselves down in front of a piece of paper, plan out our day, and get right to work. Just one problem: Anyone who’s ever tried it knows it’s not that simple.
So how do you create a successful to do list? Here are 5 key characteristics you should keep in mind when creating one of your own:
Without simplicity, a to do list just becomes another chore! How do you keep things easy?
For Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, simplicity means restricting his entire list to one sticky note. That leaves him room for about three to five high-priority tasks.
If your to do list includes 20 columns and 100 rows, you’re taking on too much. Scale back and try again.
If your to do list looks like a compendium of New Year’s Resolutions, it’s off the mark. You need to assemble the high-impact action items you can measurably accomplish in one day. “Be nicer” is great advice, but it’s not an item you can easily cross off.
A good rule of thumb? Use action items that you can measure with a number, even if that number is only one. Don’t just “run.” Run one lap. Don’t just “work on a new project.” Spend 30 minutes on that new project. Don’t “be nicer.” Write “pay someone one genuine compliment.” Without actionability, it’s difficult to cross an item off the list. It becomes a guess rather than a schedule.
One of history’s most famous list-makers, Benjamin Franklin, even assigned numbers to abstract concepts like practicing “prudence.”
Another helpful tip? Start each item on your list with a verb. It’s a lot easier to figure out what you need to do when your list says “provide feedback on quarterly report” instead of just “quarterly report.”
You can put anything you want on a to do list—even abstractions—but chances are, it won’t get done until you make it actionable.
Some people prefer to create their to do lists the day before. If you want, you can even make that the last thing you do at work: Go over tomorrow’s schedule and create a plan.
Will plans change? Of course. They always do. But your plan isn’t flexible until it’s written down, either. Create a plan of action well in advance so that if you need to adjust it, you’re not doing it blindly.
In Dale Carnegie’s classic book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” he advised living in “day-tight compartments.” The concept is similar to water-tight compartments designed to prevent flooding in boats.
Any to do list worth its salt is only composed of what you can realistically accomplish today. If you start thinking about Thursday or next week, you’re only going to increase those feelings of overwhelm.
What about those big-time projects that require weeks and months of effort? Break them up into tasks you can complete today. Doing so helps avoid the Zeigarnik effect.
This is the same effect at work when a song sticks in our head. Our brain knows we’ve left something unfinished, and will keep bugging us until we do something towards resolving it. Combat this by completing an individual unit of a larger project. When you check the item off at the end of the day, you’ll create a clear barrier between work time and personal time.
To do lists are satisfying when we check off our items and avoid the Zeigarnik effect like we just mentioned. You’ll know you did it well when you can log off for the day and feel content about how much you accomplished.
But what if you didn’t accomplish that much? Will you really feel satisfied because you ticked off some meaningless boxes on a piece of paper?
The solution is to prioritize. In one example, a psychologist speaking at the Pentagon asked a room full of military leaders to describe their approach to strategy in 25 words or fewer. Most couldn’t do it.
But one could: the lone woman in the room. And her strategic approach was brilliant in its simplicity:
That cuts straight through the busywork, doesn’t it? True—your highest-priority items might be difficult. But if you chunk them down into bite-sized pieces, you’ll end up with a to do list that accomplishes more in less time. By 5 p.m., the most difficult, highest-priority tasks will be done.
When it’s done right, your to do list is more than just a piece of paper or a page on a screen. It’s a productivity tool that helps you end your day with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
But in order to do that, you need to know how to structure your list in a way that helps you navigate around some common pitfalls.
Do you still miss deadlines despite the presence of a daily to do list? Then try tinkering with a to do list template. Think of the template only as an empty map. You’re the explorer who’s going to fill out the landmarks along the way.
Here’s a good way to make 21st-century adjustments to the strategy from the Pentagon:
What if you like checking things off, but you never get the opportunity to sit down and do what Cal Newport considers deep work? Aren’t you losing out on the life-changing magic that comes with intense focus?
To schedule deep work, prioritize your tasks with timing in mind.
Of course, you may still have one problem. What if there are too many things to do in one day? It’s hard to live in “day-tight compartments” when the work threatens to flood the entire boat.
Here are some ways you can use a to do list template to make it work, even when you’ve got a lot to sort through:
If you add everything up and it exceeds eight hours, it’s a sign you’re being too ambitious. But you still have a problem: You didn’t get every task done. Some are still “hanging.” What can you do with these?
In “Getting Things Done,” author David Allen recommends using a flowchart for determining what’s next for your low-priority tasks. These are the three Ds:
If you’re out of time for the first option, you still have two choices. You can either delegate that task to someone else (or automate it to software), or defer it until you don’t have quite such a hectic day.
As the ancient legend goes, there was a complex knot attached to a prophecy: whoever figured out the knot would rule the world. Alexander the Great took one look at it, drew his sword, and sliced the knot in half. That settled that.
If your daily schedule is your version of the Gordian knot, then a to do list template is the sword that cuts through the clutter.
By filling your list with achievable, actionable items—ranked from highest to lowest priority—you can avoid the stress that comes from schedule management. Most importantly, you’ll have an answer to the most important question of the workday: What’s next?
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