The Ultimate Guide To Effective To-Do Lists

To do list


To-do lists are as old as writing. 

They are one of the most widely used and easily learned time management strategies.

In this article, we take a detailed look at them to see how you can make the most of a to-do list. 

History Of To-Do Lists

Throughout history, there have been a number of famous To-Do list makers.

Two key ones were:

  1. Benjamin Franklin 

Franklin is known as the “Godfather of the To-Do List”. 

He created a numbered list of his daily tasks. Then, he would take it a step further by timeboxing them. 

Here’s his to-do list. 


Benjamin Franklin's To-Do List


  1. Ivy Lee

In 1918, Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel company, hired Ivy Lee, a productivity consultant, to help employees do more with their time. 

Lee recommended that employees made effective to-do lists at the end of each day and added a twist.

The to-do list contained six tasks to be completed the next day in their order of priority. 

There were two additional rules:

    1. Tasks had to be tackled one at a time from start to finish. 
    2. Incomplete tasks would be carried over to the next day as top priority tasks. 

Three months later, the employees had better control of their time, and the company was far more productive. 

Mr Schwab paid Lee $25,000 (in 1918 dollars) as that was the amount he felt it had added to his company. These days that would be closest to $500,000!


What Is A To-Do List?

A to-do list is simply a list of tasks that need to be completed. 

Different people construct and organise them differently.

At their most basic, a to-do list is a list of tasks in the order that the tasks came to the list owner’s mind when they were making it.

Some people will start with a simple list and work through it from top to bottom.

As ever, a little extra effort can generate a much better result. 


7 Ways To Make To-Do Lists Work Better

  1. Use more than one list: 

It’s important to start with a long list of all the tasks you need to tackle, but that’s only step 1. 

Next, create another list. 

This is the “priority to-do list.” which organises the first list in order of priority. 

  1. Limit the tasks – Focus on MITs

After working out multiple lists, you could also use a third (or final) list. 

This should contain 4-6 MITs (most important tasks) that you have to focus on in a single day. If you’re unsure which tasks are MITs then consider using an Eisenhower matrix.

Limiting the tasks on your to-do list makes it feel more manageable.

  1. Choose the appropriate medium or system

Some people prefer a handwritten to-do list. Others prefer digital to-do lists. Some time management apps have this feature.

What works best for you?

Some people use digital for one list and pen-and-paper for the other. 

Try each combination and find what works best for you.

  1. Break complex tasks into small checklists: The KISS Method

Identify complex tasks and break them into smaller subtasks. Keep It Simple Stupid! 

It generates a feeling of momentum and makes large tasks feel more manageable. 

Studies show that the brain’s cognitive process is considerably faster when dealing with simple instructions. 

To-do lists are instructions about what needs to be done. 

It’s easy to get discouraged when tasks seem cumbersome and difficult to surmount.  

So, make sure your tasks are clear and straightforward. 

  1. Check-off (or strike off) completed tasks:

As you complete tasks on your to-do list, check or strike them off. 

According to Harvard Business Review, ticking off tasks on your list creates a dopamine rush in the brain. 

Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter released in the brain when you get rewarded for taking action. 

The feeling that comes from striking off completed tasks motivates you to tackle the next task on the list.  

  1. Make your list visible:

It is crucial to have a shortlist of 4-6 tasks on your desk or posted (with post-it notes) somewhere you can see it easily. 

This serves as a constant reminder of what you should be doing next. This is similar to the Seinfeld strategy.

However, you should keep the long list tucked away and use it for reference. 

  1. Gamify your to-do list:

Completing tasks can become fun if you add game elements to them.

Doing this on a paper-and-pen list requires a lot of creativity. 

But, developers of to-do list apps have incorporated some game elements on their apps to make it fun for users. 

For example, todoist ranks ‘players’ by karma earned for completing tasks and lost for putting off tasks. 


Writing book and a pencil


How I Used To-Do Lists

Everyone has to find a way to make To-Do lists work best for them. 

After years of trial and error, this is my method.

  1. Create a master list & A Today list

I carry a journal with me everywhere. 

It contains everything that I need to do. Everything!  This is the master list.

I also carry a note ard with my today list on it. 

This is the 5 things that I’m going to focus on today in order, as per the Ivy Lee Method.

  1. Write tasks as they come to mind: 

I don’t put ideas off for later, I note them down in the journal immediately when they come to mind. 

  1. Make a daily list:

At the end of each day, I take a few minutes to review my ‘today list’ and my master list. 

I create a new list for tomorrow focusing on the most important tasks (see Pareto Principle).

I carry over items for the ‘today list’ and then add new ones form the last list

  1. Timebox calendar:

Using my calendar app, I allocate specific times to each task on the ‘today list’ and use the Pomodoro technique to tackle them efficiently.

See this article to learn more about the Pomodoro technique.


Pros & Cons Of To-Do Lists

Quick and easy to use Needs modification to be proper time management system
Provide structure and game plan Doesn’t work well for large complex tasks which require input from others
Create a sense of control and reward for completing tasks


Who Does A To Do List Work Best For?

To-do lists can work well for anyone.

Although its not the most advanced time management technique, done well it can help hugely. 

They are quick, simple and can be surprisingly effective so we recommend everyone tries them. 

From school students to billionaires they’re used very widely.


Final Thoughts

Most people start their time management journey using To-Do lists.

For some people they need never look further, for others they find that they need something more regimented. 

All we would say is try them (see this article on different time management strategies). Even if they don’t work for you they’ll be a step in the right direction.

About Ben Richardson

Ben is a director of Acuity Training. He writes about SQL, Power BI and Excel on a number of industry sites including SQLCentral, SQLshack and codingsight.