The Secret to Making Your To-Do List Manageable.

HOW to Make a To-Do List Actually Doable.

This article originally appeared in the Gen-i Blog.

It’s sometimes quite fun to talk to clients about their to-do lists. Because, ironically, they are usually lists of tasks that just simply can’t be done. And clients give me the weirdest look when I suggest that they may have done something as simple as a to-do list wrongly.

The general problem is that people’s lists tend to be made up more of abstract wishes than actual tasks. The lists’ items tend to be just vague gestures in the direction of where they want to go – or what they want to achieve. Otherwise, list-writers have the tendency to write lists of intentions, rather than concrete actions.

And all this, unfortunately, holds them up.

This week, I want to talk about the proper way to write to-do lists. This is something I have learned the hard way. But nailing this method has helped me to use my time more efficiently and to feel less overwhelmed by the things I need to do. It’s also stopped me procrastinating those tasks that I felt were too big, too much, or too difficult.

And, as studies show too, it also makes me a bit less anxious about all that stuff I need to do.

To-do lists, used properly, can be liberating and empowering – and I don’t exaggerate. They help with organisation, they keep you on top of things, and they give you the motivation to get through the day.

My method really is simple. It boils down to the fact that to-do lists are lists of precise tasks that need to be executed.

What’s the Point of a To-Do List?

So, really, what is a to-do list for? This is one of those questions that is so ridiculously simple that its simplicity gets obscured. We humans have an unfortunate tendency to over-complicate things that should remain simple. The to-do list is almost the best example of this.

What should one then understand a ‘to-do’ list to be? Enter the great revelation: it should be a list of things one needs to do. Exclamation mark, exclamation mark.

But the revelation, however disappointingly banal, becomes more illuminating when you compare it with what people actually list in to-do lists. Whilst ‘get new clients’ or ‘sort website’ are absolutely legitimate goals, these aren’t ‘things one needs to do’. Because, quite simply, you can’t just do them.

This, really, is the thing about to-do lists. It should be a collection of points that are actual, tangible tasks. Thinking philosophically, I suppose, ‘get new clients’ is not something that you do strictly. But rather, like sorting the website, it’s a conglomeration of lots of different, smaller tasks. And to get clear on HOW to implement things effectively, a to-do list is indispensable.

By all means, make a list of larger goals, intentions, and plans. But if you are using this as a to-do list, they are never going to get done.

Finite Tasks, Not Wishy-Washy Wishes.

These larger wishes – or the bigger projects that you want to see fulfilled – are not things that can be ticked off throughout the day. As I said, you can’t actually do them.

The problem with this is that, if you have these on your list, the use of the list breaks down. The list is no longer empowering; it no longer gives you that continuous feeling of moving onto the next thing. Rather, it becomes an obstruction: ‘ah, I have to sort my website – I don’t have time for that!’. You end up procrastinating these tasks, because you feel as though they are undoable.

And that’s exactly what they are. ‘Sort website’ is something that is achieved by doing lots of little individual other things. And these other things are finite, they are graspable, they are doable. It’s these things that should be on your list.

How Do You Get through To-Do Lists?

Let’s take ‘sort website’ as a longer example. What does this actually mean for you? Do you mean change the design? Rewrite the copy? Add a new page? Start a blog? Sure, you might know exactly what you mean by writing ‘sort website’ – but the chances are you wouldn’t have written that if it were true.

So, be precise about what you mean by the task. If, by ‘sort website’, you mean ‘rewrite the copy’, is this even a sufficiently tangible task? Perhaps you need to plan what information you know you are going to need, before you start writing. Maybe you want to speak to a copy writer.

The tasks then become much different: 1) go through website and evaluate your copy on each page; 2) search for a copy writer online and make contact with one you like; 3) draw up a list of features you want your content to have.

At this point, the ‘things one needs to do’ are a little different to what they were at the beginning.

The Benefit of Thinking Small.

By making these tasks much smaller, you make them more manageable, and you make yourself more likely to actually do them.

Think in terms of hour slots, if it helps. It takes about an hour to evaluate your current copy. It takes about an hour to get in touch a copy writer. The larger the task, the less likely you are to confront it.

Thinking in terms of smaller tasks, you feel like you are actually achieving more.

Batching Tasks.

Finally, batch the similar tasks together. We discussed this in my article on task-batching, in which I discussed the idea that you are much more efficient if you are doing different types of tasks in one go.

So, you have to call a copy writer. At the same time, in your attempt to ‘get new clients’, maybe you have to pick up the phone and make a pitch. Doing all your phone calls in a row will keep your efficiency high. Because, as we discussed before, you waste so much time, energy and focus by switching between different tasks.

That’s It!

The secret of a to-do list is to keep the tasks small. Break every single task down into its smallest possible piece. Only from there will you actually start doing something.

As a last piece of advice, I use Asana to help me manage my task. They are constantly improving and have a wealth of training videos on how to best use their application. Give it a go!

How to Write a To-Do List? Action Points.

  • Keep your intention in mind at all times.
  • Ensure every task is small and every task is actually doable.
  • Batch your similar tasks together!

This article originally appeared in the Gen-i Blog.


  • Nicola MacPhail

    Change Expert, Author & Facilitator


    A consultant, writer and facilitator. Based in Cumbria I coach clients across the UK and internationally. I write extensively on ‘The HOW Skill Set’ in addition to offering workshops, training and consultancy. Born from a passion to help others ‘Make Change Happen’, I help people make effective implementation plans, be more productive and leverage habits to implement vital changes and thrive in life and work!