How To Make An Effective To Do List

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a guest post on the Rebel Lux Design Studio blog by the very lovely Brittany on 11 Reasons Why You Need A To Do List, and I wanted to follow up by sharing some tips on how you can make an efficient to do list!

Without further ado, here are the tips and tricks that I have learned and experimented with over the years.

1. Be realistic in your goals

Set targets that you know you can achieve. If you know that you have a full day tomorrow and can only get one task done, then so be it. It’s better to do one thing and do it well than it is to try 10 things haphazardly or worse, leave them unchecked on your list and be overwhelmed by guilt. Ben Franklin can tell you all about how that can backfire.

There are a few ways in which you can set about being realistic, and one method is the 1-3-5 rule; that is, set 1 big task, 3 medium-sized ones, and 5 little ones.

2. Be ruthless

Because your time is valuable, and whilst you can do anything, you can’t do everything - at least not in one day! Seriously think about what is important and absolutely has to get done. Everything else should go into a brain dump list that you can refer to when you have time (or you can drop it off altogether).

3. Purge your list

At least once a week, take a few minutes to evaluate what you have done and what you didn’t do last week. Give yourself a pat on the back for what you accomplished, big or small, and ask why you didn’t complete the other tasks. If they were not important in the first place, can you leave them off your next list? If you were procrastinating, what could you do to make the task more appealing? Perhaps a small reward at the end of it?

4. Use the rollover method

This is a bit of an extension to  the previous list. Whenever you don't get to something on your list and still think it's still important, simply 'roll it over' to tomorrow's list.

While you certainly don't want to do this for like half your list, it's fine every now and then. Recognise that not everything needs to be done in one day, and give yourself some grace.

5. Get a Personal Assistant (PA)!

You don’t have to shell out big bucks to get a PA or be a Fortune 500 CEO. You can be your own PA and be CEO of your life. Do this by making this as easy as possible for yourself. Need to call the insurance company? Write the number next to your task. Know that they only open for 2 hours today? Write that down. Doing this not only saves you time by ensuring that you don’t have to check somewhere else for the details, but makes the task a little simpler if the details are right there.

6. Make your tasks more manageable

Break them down into chunks. If I have to write an essay for example, my tasks would look like this:

  1. Read up on topic
  2. Write introduction
  3. Write body
  4. Write conclusion
  5. Re-read and edit essay
  6. Proofread and submit

Doing this may add a few lines to your list, but makes the whole project so much more manageable, and will help you plan out your time that much better. Had I written simply ‘write essay’, it would seem daunting, but breaking it down reminds me to take it one step at a time.

7. Start each task with a verb

Notice how each task above starts with an action word. Simply ‘essay’ is non-descriptive and doesn’t say much about what I have to do exactly.

Starting each task tells you exactly the actions you need to take, and studies have also shown that being more specific helps you be more productive.

8. Keep separate lists

Having ‘reply business inquiries’ next to ‘rearrange sock drawer’ can get plain confusing. Try to keep lists of your main tasks, or at least sectionalise your to do list or use different colours for each type of task. This means that you always know where you’re supposed to look for your next action.

9. Use paper

If you’ve seen the Openquote Designs home page before, you have got to have seen this coming. Writing things down on paper not only boosts your memory, but allows you to be creative with your lists, which is something an app, no paper how wonderfully designed, cannot offer.

Of course, you don’t have to pull out all the fancy washi if you don’t want to, but having a pretty to do list sure makes you want to look at it more.

10. Choose one method

You can have your to do list in your planner, on a sticky note, and in your phone, but be mindful to look at your list in the first place, and that all the things you do are on there.

My recommendation is to pick one method, and stick to it. If you’re new to making to do lists, try a new method each day (only one per day!) until you find one you can commit to.

11. Schedule your tasks

When this works, it works well. Try scheduling in your tasks and putting reminders so that you remember when you have to do them. For example, you may block off 10AM - 11AM for laundry, and 11:30AM - 1PM for your weekly meal prep.

This also ensures that you don’t over commit to things, as you always know how much time you have.

I would personally schedule in some ‘buffer time’ - a few minutes in between tasks, depending on what they are - so that if one task takes longer than expected, you don’t feel panicky the whole day about being behind schedule.

12. Have deadlines

There’s nothing worse than thinking something will only take an hour, and having it take up your entire morning/afternoon. To combat this, try setting a deadline: I will finish this essay by 3pm today.

I personally find this very helpful. If I simply say that I want to finish an essay today, I will end up taking the whole day to do it. But, if I actually have a set time and deadline, I will be motivated to move my butt and just get it done.

13. Put something fun on your list

If you to do list is full of not-so-exciting things, changing things up may be just the thing you need! If you put something nice on your list, like ‘eat chocolate cake’, or ‘paint my nails’ (‘nap’ is a favourite one!), it gives you motivation to finish the things before it so that you can get to that. And why shouldn’t ‘take a nap’ be a thing that you can check off?!

14. Write down things you have already done

We all have days that we feel we haven't done anything, and the truth is, you have. Write down things that you have done, even if they weren't on your original plan. And for those really bad days, 'get out of bed' and 'brush my teeth' absolutely do count as accomplishments. Write them down, and tick them off!

If you constantly find yourself doing unplanned tasks instead (and I'm not referring to the times when you're not feeling so well), you may want to write this on a separate list. This is so you can reflect and see if there is a pattern or reason why you're not doing things according to plan. It may be time to change your priorities.

15. Forgive yourself

This is very, very important. For all that your to do list, there is one thing that it is not, which is something to beat yourself up about.

Your to do list is a tool for productivity, so that you get things done and feel accomplished. Even if you haven’t crossed off everything on your to do list, know that it is okay. Let’s face it: there are days when not everything gets done. Some days, it may be because something unexpected pops up; on others, it may simply be because the sky is beautiful, and going for a nice long walk is a genuinely better choice than staying home and finishing up the laundry.

If you are having trouble with this, you may want to refer back to #X.

Again, because I really want you to remember this, it is okay to not do everything. You are a person. Don’t let the pressure of checking things off get in the way of your happiness.


A to do list is a tool to help you. What is most important is finding something that works for you, and the tips in this list are meant to help you find that. Some of these methods may work wonderfully for you, and some may not quite be right.

Either way, do try to experiment until something works for you, because the end result is worth it.

Found a helpful tip to make a more efficient to do list? Do share in the comments, or send me a message! You can also get in touch with me on Instagram.