Managing To-Do Lists

I like to think I remember everything. Over time I’ve learned that’s not true, so I write things down. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so it seems like there’s always something I want to be doing or improving on. Soon my to-do list is a novel of its own and I’m too overwhelmed to do anything at all. That completely defeats the purpose of having the list in the first place!

Over time I’ve developed systems to help me to keep a to-do list without letting it control me.

Managing To-Do Lists

Write It All Down

I originally started a to-do list because I was going crazy trying to remember everything. I’d forget things and then feel upset, or I’d spend time worrying about forgetting things. I couldn’t shut off the part of my brain thinking about the tasks because if I did, I might forget them. It’s hard to relax when you’re not allowed to stop thinking about something.

Write down any task you think of that you want to accomplish. This can be with pen and paper, or in an app on your phone. Writing it down makes it easier to balance against other items on your list to decide which ones are your priorities and frees your brain to think about other things.

Narrow Your Focus

If you’re like me, your written list can quickly get out of control. Writing it down is the first step, but now you have to prioritize. Give yourself a second list – this one only includes items that made the cut for today/this week/whatever time frame you can handle. Depending on what app you’re using, you may need a second app to accomplish this, or just another piece of paper. The most robust apps will allow you to set dates for tasks and/or create separate lists.

Try to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day or you’ll just be setting yourself up for failure. Remember if you complete the tasks on this list you can always go back to your master list and find more! My list for the day might look something like this:

  • Call customer service
  • Wash dishes
  • Do laundry
  • Work on blog
  • Meal plan

Now put stars next to the two or three most important tasks for the day. Which items would make you feel successful if you completed them and nothing else? Some days for me, it’s making a dreaded phone call. The laundry can wait as long as my starred items get done!

Dealing with Projects Instead of Tasks

Sometimes things end up on our to-do list which are too big to be a task by themselves. These are often long-term goals (like running a marathon) or multi-step projects (like redecorating a room.) Projects should be broken down into smaller steps, which are the actual tasks that will get you to your goal.

Redecorate Living Room

  • Create a budget
  • Pick a color scheme
  • Decide focal point
  • Devise a floor plan
  • Choose furniture
  • Choose lighting

I could go on, but that list would get much longer! The point is that each of the sub-tasks is specific and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. You can add one or two sub-points to your active to-do list a day and over time you will reach your ultimate goal.

Add Notes

If you already have some information you need to complete a task, try to keep it available with your to-do list. This may mean jotting a phone number down for that call you want to make or making a quick list of things you brainstormed for redecorating your room. Adding notes saves time because you won’t have to re-trace your steps later.

Create Multiple Lists

If you have lots of tasks pending, try to keep them organized by sub-lists. This mostly applies to your master list and not so much to your daily list, which should already be short enough to not need further organization. Sub-lists could be things like:

  • Work tasks
  • Home tasks
  • Distant future (that way you don’t have to look at these items every day!)
  • Weekend maintenance
  • Redecorating living room (from above)
  • If I have time

Having multiple lists makes it easy for you to look in the right spot when you’ve finished all the items on your daily list and find yourself with some extra time.

I used to use simple (and fun!) task apps like Carrot and Habitica. However, moving to an app that allows multiple lists has helped me to feel better about my to-do list because all those unfinished tasks aren’t necessarily right in front of me; they’re just there when I need them (my favorite task app is Todoist).

Manage Your To-Do List

Putting It into Practice

To-do lists can create problems of their own if you don’t know ways to control them. I hope by taking manageable pieces, breaking projects into steps, and creating multiple lists for different purposes, you are able to use your list instead of being overwhelmed by it.

If you are a paper-and-pen sort of person, I have created printable pages for various lists including:

  • Today’s tasks
  • Recurring daily, weekly, monthly, and annual tasks
  • Projects
  • A master list

You can download it here!

 To-Do List Printables


This is perfect! I have a hard time staying organized.

Thanks, Adrienne! The problem with organization is that it’s an on-going project. It’s so easy to hope that things will stay organized but then life happens!

Tiffany M. Bastedo

I totally have separate lists for home, work, and business. My work list never comes home; it stays at the hospital. My home and business lists get broken down in to, as you said, tasks vs projects. And then I do a combination of each daily depending on when my deadlines are. So, I have a blog post due Sunday but I also have a talk due at the end of the month. So I’ll work mostly on the blog post but I’ll also get the marketing and such going for the talk. Then I’ll write the talk after a bit. Love to do lists and organization. It keeps me sane having what amounts to three full time jobs.

That’s so important when you have a lot to keep straight! I’m interested in how you deal with longer tasks like writing your talk. If you don’t get it done in one sitting, do you break it down into smaller pieces or keep forwarding it to the next day’s list?

Tiffany M Bastedo – Accelerated JoyWorks

Larger tasks are planned out in my planner in blocks or chunks of time. So for instance, tonight I’m working on personal stuff: writing letters, decanting and bottling my bone broth for next week, and doing some chores. Saturday morning I’ll write part of the blog post and plan my business Facebook posts for the week. Then two clients at my office. I’ll stay at the office to work on the other half of the blog post. Sunday morning I’m working on the talk including the marketing as I mentioned above. Then, Wednesday night I have at two hour block that I’ll also work on the talk and again on the following Saturday morning. You need to plan your month and then plan your week as you go. That way you never loose track. Does that make sense?

Yes, I see you get time blocking involved in your planning. I don’t use that method myself, but I know it really works for some people! Thanks for sharing!

Grandi | My Aggrandized Life

I have lists for everything. I am a pen and paper type list person and I have a love-hate relationship with sticky-notes. I use the sticky notes for absolute must-do things and post them on my computer of wherever I will see them that is relevant to the task – they drive me nuts and I do not get to take them down until the task is complete. It’s great motivation! 😉

Lol I love how you motivate yourself with the post-it notes! That would drive me crazy too; I can see how it would help you get those procrastination-prone tasks done.

I love lists. I have lists for everything!
I love my planner, because it has space for my lists and my schedules, so everything is in one place. And I use a semi-bullet journal system to keep track of them.

I will have to try a planner one of these days. I had one back in college but ended up just using it like a notebook instead of using the calendar portion! All the white-space in bullet journals is intimidating to me.

Absolutely love this post! I’m a project manager and live by task lists. I use this methodology in my everyday life too!

So much of project management relies on organization!

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