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How to Build a Better, Less-Stressful To-Do List

By Shelley Levitt
January 05, 2023

The humble to-do list can help us set our intentions and priorities, and serve as a reminder for tasks that may otherwise slip our attention. When done the right way, our to-do lists serve as the North Star of our workday, the roadmap to our personal life, the secret sauce to success.

But more often than not, we overstuff our lists with more than we can accomplish in a month, and hope that the items will magically assemble themselves into a useful order. Instead of feeling organized and motivated, we're left with too much unfinished business and more lost than when we started.

6 Ways to Create a More Effective To-Do List

If your to-do list has you feeling more stuck than structured, these six tips will help you create one that is organized, reasonable, and specific.

1. Consider Effort As Well As Urgency

When you start jotting down your tasks for the day, you likely front-load it with the biggest, most time-consuming tasks. But that’s why you might be falling short.

“We tend to focus on how important a task is, but we also need to acknowledge that we have a limited amount of energy during the day,” says Alejandra Marqués, a criminal law professor–turned–productivity coach. “A to-do list that minimizes stress and boosts productivity will include a balance of tasks that require a lot of energy, and tasks that require less effort or could even be done on autopilot.”

To get started, keep an energy journal for a couple of weeks to track when your focus is strongest and when it starts to lag. You can also note which kinds of tasks energize you and which leave you feeling drained.

Then, you’ll be able to align challenging tasks, like working on a presentation, with the time of day that you’re at your sharpest, and schedule less-intensive, routine tasks to coincide with energy dips. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Ph.D., calls this technique attention management.

2. Set Realistic Expectations

Your daily or weekly to-do list shouldn’t be a laundry list of every last thing you’d like to get done. Instead, it should be a record of things you can actually accomplish within a given time frame, says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and author of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.

When everything feels urgent, Suzuki suggests stepping back and thinking like a CEO. “That means setting priorities with precision and impartiality,” Suzuki says. "As the CEO of the company of ‘you,’ consider which tasks are most important to do first to move your life forward in the best way." Once you’ve determined your must-do-nows, you can go about creating a timeline of your can-do-laters.

3. Seek Out Small Wins

An overly ambitious to-do list can leave you feeling like a failure at the end of the day, says Ellen Leonard, a stress management consultant. “Clients often report feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry when they overestimate what they can accomplish in a day,” she says.

Breaking down the bigger items into smaller, more quickly accomplished subtasks can help you feel satisfied with your progress. “Taking small steps towards your goals can build your sense of mastery and competence,” Leonard explains.

Instead of putting “write business presentation” on your to-do list, divide it into several manageable steps: “create the outline,” “gather graphics,” “reach out to the research team for facts and figures.” At the same time, you can group quick tasks into a single to-do item that you can complete in one brief chunk of time, like “pay phone and utility bills,” “make dentist appointment,” and “order birthday cake.”

4. Identify “Don’t” Items

Part of creating a to-do list like a pro is recognizing the tasks that won’t serve you and creating a “to-don’t” list.

This list might include guidelines around not answering emails between 9 and 11 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays and, instead, using that time for deep focus work. Or skipping social media on weekend afternoons and using that time for activities that recharge you. Sometimes, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do when you’re getting your priorities straight.

5. Connect to Your Why

We all have that one to-do item, like working out in the morning, that somehow slides its way onto our list each week, with a completion rate hovering around 50 percent.

Reminding yourself of the “why” behind the workout—the reason it made its way onto your to-do list in the first place—can help you realign with your values and channel your motivation to get it done.

Make it impossible to forget your why by jotting it down in bold letters right next to the item on your list. Maybe your why is that you want to feel energetic and vibrant, or you want to work your way up to that half-marathon next year.

Another strategy is to have an if-then backup plan—or what experts call an implementation intention. Here’s an example: “If a last-minute work meeting conflicts with my morning workout, then I’ll get off the bus two stops early and walk the rest of the way home.”

6. Reevaluate Your Priorities

If the same items keep getting transferred from one to-do list to the next, and connecting to your purpose doesn’t seem to help, it’s time to figure out why they’re sticking around. Maybe, for example, you lack the tools and expertise necessary to retile your bathroom by yourself. Hiring a local contractor to do the job for you will still allow you to deem it a mission accomplished.

You may also consider whether your interest in a project has waned. Baking sourdough bread may have seemed like a good idea a few years ago when everyone was stuck at home, but now you’re happy to pick up a baguette from your corner bakery. There’s no reason to have musty items languishing on your list as a constant reproach. Cross them off and move on to a new project that inspires and excites you.

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