3 Ways to Makeover Your To-Do List


When you look at your to-do list for the day, week, or month (or lists of projects and actions if you follow David Allen’s GTD distinction), do you feel a sense of clarity and direction? Or do you feel confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated?

If you feel overwhelmed, it may not just be the quantity of the work you plan to do. It may also be due to a lack of clarity about the work you plan to do.

Taking a little time to clean up your to-do list with one or more of the following steps can offer huge rewards in productive focus.

Start Each Task With a Verb

This is an extremely simple but very powerful way to write a more effective to-do list and gain clarity about your work. Starting each item with a verb helps you to articulate more precisely what the needed task is, how you will do it, and to estimate how much time it will take.

When you write a noun on a to-do list, it is usually naming either the goal or the obstacle. It may seem perfectly clear to you right now what the actions are associated with that noun, but some time in the future, it may not be so obvious. That means each time you look at the noun on your to-do list, you have to analyze it a little bit, which takes effort and can often build up resistance to starting the project.

For instance, if I write “travel receipts” on my to-do list, each time I look at that item, I have to figure out what it is that I actually have to do with them. But if I write down “print out airplane ticket receipt” and “scan hotel receipt” as two separate tasks, they become simple things that I can easily accomplish, without any further thought. (This is the beauty of a zombie list.)

Write Down the Next Action

One of the most powerful distinctions in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is the difference between a project, which he defines as anything requiring two or more actions, and an action.

You can’t do a project. You can only do actions. (That’s why they need verbs!)

For example, “submit travel receipts for reimbursement” is a project, which contains several steps that involve collecting, scanning, itemizing, and submitting the receipts.

As you begin to makeover your to-do list items with verbs, you may find that you’re already beginning to get more specific about the actions needed to complete a project. But sometimes a verb describes a project goal, and not the very next step needed to move the project forward. “Submit travel receipts” is only a clear directive if you already have all the receipts and necessary forms ready to go.

Make your actions specific and measurable so that you know whether you did it or not. “Write more on the draft for Essay X” begins with a verb, and names your next action for the project, but is still vague. “Write one page on Essay X” or “Write the paragraph on Topic A for Essay X” or “Write for 20 minutes” are examples of tasks that you could, at the end of the day, easily assess as to whether you completed them or not. The neurochemical structures of the brain love completion, and so will you, when you write your task list in a way that helps you to experience more of it.

Let Go of Tasks You Don’t Need

If you have a task (or two or twenty) that has been sitting on your to-do list for a long time, ask yourself why that is. If you’ve already checked to see if it is a task that is specific and manageable, maybe it’s no longer something you’re really committed to doing. Is it something that you no longer actually want to do? Is it something that you think you ought to do, but feel some reluctance or resistance about? Or is it something you’d like to do sometime in the future, but can’t fully commit to right now?

Removing the tasks you’re not committed to from your list will free up energy and time to focus on the things you are committed to.

[Creative Commons licensed image from flickr user Paul Hurtado]

What are your favorite tools for managing task lists? Let us know in the comments!

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