4 Rules For Making A To-Do List That Actually Gets Sh*t Done

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To-do lists are supposed to reduce the stress in your life, right? Well, only if you handle them the right way. Writing everything down in a messy list without direction or organization will only get you so far. That kind of list is confusing to look at, and it can be hard to discern which tasks need to be handled first. Take back control of your to-do list.

Step 1: Brain Dump

The very first thing you have to do before getting into the nitty-gritty of to-do lists is to write down anything and everything you need to do. It doesn’t need to have any kind of rhyme or rhythm. Simply sit down with a piece of paper and pen and write down everything you think of, even if it’s not a big deal and can be done at any time. I typically designate anywhere from 10-30 minutes for this. It depends on how much I think of, but as soon as I run out of stuff I move on to the next step.

Remember: a brain dump is not meant to be organized at all. Don’t spend time or energy trying to group tasks together. Just write them down in the order they come to you because you’re going to organize the list later.

Step 2: Organize Everything In a Master To-Do List

Once you have the brain dump completed, you can organize all of those random tasks into different categories and prioritize them. The categories are entirely dependent on your personal needs. For me, tasks typically fall into the following categories: work, personal, chores, and errands.

Work tasks include things like answering emails, researching topics, and writing articles. Chores are obviously things like cleaning and paying bills. Errands include everything from grocery shopping to buying gifts, and renewing my license to airing up my tires. The personal category is the least defined. Sometimes, it includes making dinner plans with a friend, reading a book I just bought, or talking to my dad about taxes. These categories might work for you, but you might also need to add other categories, like family, school, and individual projects.

I could break my categories down even further if I wanted to, but I find that becomes overwhelming for my life. More specific categories could be useful in your life, however. You just need to find out through trial and error. After you’ve got your categories, write them down on another sheet of paper. This will be your “Master To Do List.”

Go through your brain dump thinking of one category at a time. Place a mark next to all of the tasks that fit the category, and then rank them in order of importance on the brain dump sheet. Once you’re done prioritizing everything for that one category, write the tasks down on your Master list in order of importance. Continue this process until every task is categorized and prioritized.

You can always come back to add more to your Master list later if you remember another task.

Step 3: Assign Tasks to Different Days

Ok, so the next step is deciding which tasks you’re going to tackle during the week. This will rely heavily on your instincts and various appointments, so look closely at each day of the week. It’s important not to overschedule your tasks, too. Trust me: I’ve done that several times, and it feels like nothing ever gets done because I spend so much time trying to do everything.

Generally, I try to schedule about three major tasks and fill in the rest of the day with smaller stuff, like calls and chores. This keeps me from taking on more than I can realistically accomplish and allows me to still have a semblance of a social life.

Write down the tasks you’re going to do each day in your planner (or type them in, if you use an electronic planning system) and do what you can to finish them each day. You might have a handful of tasks that you aren’t sure when to schedule, but that’s normal. Don’t stress about finding a day to complete them. Leave them on the Master list to be addressed during a miraculous spare moment this week. If you can’t tend to them this week, then simply move them onto the following week’s Master list. They’re likely small tasks with no set deadline so this won’t be the end of the world.

Step 4: Keep Some Flexibility

No matter how well you’ve prioritized and planned, life is still going to happen. There’s bound to be at least one surprise that will throw off your schedule during the week. You could completely freak out and throw an internal bitch-fit (as I am wont to do), or you can take a deep breath and adjust accordingly. I’m learning to do the latter, and so far I’ve realized it’s a lot better to go that route.

Roll with the punches. You can always rework your plans later when things have calmed down. Besides, 90% of the stuff on your list isn’t as important as it feels. Sure, you need to finish painting the guest bedroom, but you aren’t going to die if you skip the painting to see a movie with your best friend. There’s a difference between a prioritized task and an actual priority. The actual priorities make you happy and allow you to enjoy your life.

Terra is an Arkansas-based writer who spends her free time obsessing over her planner, debating between working out or eating, and singing to her dog, Gatsby, even though he hates it. She also writes for Earn, Spend, Live blogs here.

Image via Unsplash 

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  • Antoinette

    Definitely agree with the brain dump! Thanks for an interesting and applicable read 🙂

  • I really like the Master To-Do list. I need to try organizing my items into categories. I usually just write them in the order I can do them, but this is interesting.

  • Jennifer O’Donnell

    I LOVE to-do lists! I use them all the time for work and personal stuff because I know I’ll forget something if I don’t write it down. This is a great guide! Thank you!