2 Ways to Write an Effective To Do List

by The Burns & McDonnell Careers Team on November 16, 2012

two ways to write a to do listThe to-do list — it’s either your daily go-to document or the bane of your existence (or maybe a little of both)! A to-do list can be a great productivity tool to help keep yourself on track — and decrease your chances of overlooking a task or project.

Yet to-do lists can quickly become burdensome, even overwhelming, depending on how they’re written. The next time you sit down to create your to-do list, keep these two approaches in mind that will help you make an effective, efficient list.

Keep It Short

Have you ever started writing a to-do list and, before you know it, you’ve filled a whole page with tasks? At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Yet to-do lists that are too long can actually be counterproductive. You may find yourself becoming consumed by the number of tasks and spend too much time on what’s urgent right now instead of larger, more meaningful projects.

If you like the simple style of a basic to-do list, keep using it! Just keep your list short and concise. Try outlining five tasks you want to finish in a particular day. If you complete the list and have more time available, start another one. Or begin a fresh list the next day while enjoying the heady sense of accomplishment you earned the day before!

A Three-Column Approach

Follow Jim Benson’s lead and create a three-column to-do list, an approach he outlined in his book Personal Kanban. Title your columns Ready, Doing and Done. In the Ready column, include a list of things you’re supposed to do. In the Doing column, set a limit of three tasks (you can change the number, but three is a good starting point). Move three tasks from the Ready column to the Doing column. As you shift things to the Done column, look back at your Ready column and add a task that’s of the highest value.

“Each of these columns are vital, because the Ready column is showing you options — previously your to-do list was a death sentence, but now it’s turned into options,” Benson said in an interview with Fast Company. “The Doing column says ‘Here’s the list of things I’m working on; I can’t start anything else until I complete one; finish it!’ Then the Done column allows a growing real-time retrospective of your work.”

Give both approaches a try to see which works best for you and your projects. Before you know it, you’ll find a system that helps keep you organized and efficient. Just be prepared for colleagues to ask about your productivity secret!

Do you use a to-do list? Are you happy with your current system or is your to-do list in need of an update?

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