By Sarah Pavey and the Mind Tools Team
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To-Do Lists

The Key to Efficiency

Get your tasks in order,
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.

Do you often feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, or do you find yourself missing deadlines? Or do you sometimes just forget to do something important, so that people have to chase you to get work done?

All of these are symptoms of not keeping a proper "To-Do List." These are prioritized lists of all the tasks that you need to carry out. They list everything that you have to do, with the most important tasks at the top of the list, and the least important tasks at the bottom.

By keeping such a list, you make sure that your tasks are written down all in one place so you don't forget anything important. And by prioritizing tasks, you plan the order in which you'll do them, so that you can tell what needs your immediate attention, and what you can leave until later.

To-Do Lists are essential if you're going to beat work overload. When you don't use them effectively, you'll appear unfocused and unreliable to the people around you. When you do use them effectively, you'll be much better organized, and you'll be much more reliable. You'll experience less stress, safe in the knowledge that you haven't forgotten anything important. More than this, if you prioritize intelligently, you'll focus your time and energy on high value activities, which will mean that you're more productive, and more valuable to your team.

Keeping a properly structured and thought-out list sounds simple enough. But it can be surprising how many people fail to use them at all, never mind use them effectively. In fact, it's often when people start to use them effectively and sensibly that they make their first personal productivity breakthroughs, and start making a success of their careers.

Preparing a To-Do List

Start by downloading our free template. Then follow these steps:

Step 1:

Write down all of the tasks that you need to complete. If they're large tasks, break out the first action step, and write this down with the larger task. (Ideally, tasks or action steps should take no longer than 1-2 hours to complete.)

Note:

You may find it easier to compile several lists (covering personal, study, and workplace, for example). Try different approaches and use the best for your own situation.

Step 2:

Run through these tasks allocating priorities from A (very important, or very urgent) to F (unimportant, or not at all urgent).

If too many tasks have a high priority, run through the list again and demote the less important ones. Once you have done this, rewrite the list in priority order.

Using Your To-Do List

To use your list, simply work your way through it in order, dealing with the A priority tasks first, then the Bs, then the Cs, and so on. As you complete tasks, tick them off or strike them through.

What you put on your list and how you use it will depend on your situation. For instance, if you're in a sales-type role, a good way to motivate yourself is to keep your list relatively short, and aim to complete it every day.

But in you're in an operational role, or if tasks are large or dependent on too many other people, then it may be better to focus on a longer-term list, and "chip away" at it day-by-day.

Many people find it helpful to spend, say, 10 minutes at the end of the day, organizing tasks on their list for the next day.

Tip:

When you're prioritizing tasks, make sure you differentiate between urgency and importance. For more on this, see our article on Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle .

Using Software

Although using a paper list is an easy way to get started, software-based approaches can be more efficient in spite of the learning curve. These can remind you of events or tasks that will soon be overdue, they can also be synchronized with your phone or email, and they can be shared with others on your team, if you're collaborating on a project.

There are many time management software programs available. At a simple level, you can use MSWord or MSExcel to manage your lists. Some versions of Microsoft Outlook, and other email services such as Gmail, have task lists as standard features. Remember the Milk is another popular online task management tool that will sync with your smartphone, PDA, or email account. It can even show you where your tasks are on a map. Other similar services include Todoist and Toodledo.

One of the biggest advantages to using a software-based approach to manage your list is that you can update it easily. For example, instead of scratching off tasks and rewriting the list every day, software allows you to move and prioritize tasks quickly.

Tip:

All of us think, plan and work differently. A program that works well for a colleague might not work well for you simply because you learn and think in your own way. This is why it's useful to research and try several different ways of compiling your list before deciding on a single system.

Examples

To-Do Lists can help you get, and stay, on top of important projects and piles of tasks or decisions.

For instance, imagine you're heading a team that's working on a project. There are so many tasks to do, and so many people doing them, that staying on top of it all seems overwhelming.

In this situation, structure your list by team member, writing out tasks and deadlines for every person on the project. Each day as you write out your own tasks that need completion, you can also check your Team To-Do List to see who's working on what, and if anything is due in that day. You can also include other tasks that you need to complete as part of your job.

Or, imagine you're in a sales role and have a long list of people who you need to talk to. You write out a list of everyone you need to call and every client you need to see, and start prioritizing.

You know that one client really keen on your product and is ready to buy, so you prioritize them with an "A" – this is a prospect that's really worth focusing on. Conversely, you know that another prospect is playing you off against several competitors, meaning that the you'll make less profit, and that there's a reasonable chance that you won't get the business. You prioritize this person with a "D". It's worth making some effort here, but you should focus most of your attention on better prospects.

Tip:

To-Do Lists are particularly useful when you have a small number of tasks that you need to complete. However, they can become cumbersome when you have too many items on them, or when you need to progress multiple projects. At this stage, it's worth starting to use Action Programs , which are designed to manage more complex situations reliably.

Key Points

To be well organized in the workplace, you need to be using To-Do Lists. By using them, you will ensure that:

  • You remember to carry out all necessary tasks.
  • You tackle the most important jobs first, and don't waste time on trivial tasks.
  • You don't get stressed by a large number of unimportant jobs.

Start by listing all of the tasks that you must carry out.

Mark the importance of the task next to it, with a priority from A (very important) to F (unimportant). Redraft the list into this order of importance. Then carry out the jobs at the top of the list first. These are the most important, most beneficial tasks to complete.

You can also use software-based approaches to manage your list. You can often access these from anywhere, and they can often be synced with your Smartphone or PDA.

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Comments (32)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hello Holley,

    Thank you for the positive feedback here and in other articles. You'll find a plethora of useful materials, bite-sized training, and articles on the site which I'm sure will help with your thesis and in your everyday life.

    Bill
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago holleyjacobs wrote
    I downloaded this immediately. I have tried so many "To Do" lists in which many were more confusing and took longer than what I was doing. This sheet is simple and gets to the point, not to mention, is a sound document to use over and over.
    Regards,
    ~ Holley Jacobs
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Rebecca,
    It's great that you post your to-do lists all over the place. I imagine that helps to keep you focused, on track and always using your time effectively because you can see what you want to be doing.

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
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