How to Write an Effective To Do List

Ever since early man first scratched his desire to “Make fire, find food” and “Don’t get eaten” on a cave wall, goal-oriented people have been approaching each new day in a similar fashion, jotting down in one form or another the upcoming tasks that require their attention.

The “To Do List” hasn’t much evolved since those dark perilous days in terms of its primary purpose: the need to plan our day and manage time effectively, but there has been a progression in terms of its complexity.

Today, the need for better to do lists — from how to write them, what should and should not appear on them, and most importantly, how to get the most from them — has never been more important.

Put aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to write tomorrow’s to do list.

When “To Do” It

Ironically, the first thing to do each day should not be your to do list—it should already be waiting for you when you arrive at your desk. After all, there are much more important things to be doing first thing in the morning, like getting that first all-important coffee. Put aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to write tomorrow’s to do list.

Writing a to do list the day before has many advantages over planning your upcoming day on the morning in question. After all, you have just completed a day’s work and hence should have a good idea of where you are in the grand scale of things. What didn’t you get to today? What tasks will naturally fall into tomorrow’s to do list?

Writing tomorrow’s to do list can also be a cathartic exercise; a way of recognizing that everything does not all need to be done in one day.

Have you just had one of those days and are now left with that dreaded “I’ve got nothing done” feeling? Write tomorrow’s to do list. You’ll feel better for it.

Plan in advance. Look ahead a few days. Is there a big chunk of work looming on the horizon?

To Do:

  • Do check tomorrow’s calendar and schedule. Tomorrow’s to do list will likely consist of meetings and any crucial deadlines that are fast approaching.
  • Do plan in advance. Look ahead a few days. Is there a big chunk of work looming on the horizon? Maybe tomorrow is a good time to make a start on it.
  • Do consult today’s to do list and focus on any outstanding tasks. These remaining jobs will likely feature on tomorrow’s list.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t start tomorrow’s to do list at the very end of the day, as doing so will likely result in merely jotting down the more obvious of upcoming tasks on your agenda. To do lists help focus and guide you through the day and dedicating a few minutes to the process will save you time in the long run. Most comprehensive to do lists take less than ten minutes to draft.
  • Don’t try and foretell the future. Avoid adding to tomorrow’s list tasks you think might crop up. Your to do list is a fluid entity, and you can always add to it tomorrow if need be.

Red tasks (usually) need to be done today no matter what.

Color Coded Prioritization

Introducing color to your to do list is a simple and effective way of clearly defining and easily categorizing the numerous and varying tasks at hand.

When it comes to prioritization, people use different criteria to determine how their tasks should be ranked. Generally, however, the tried and trusted traffic light system works best. Red tasks need to be done today no matter what. Amber tasks are important but it’s not the end of the world if they slip into tomorrow, while green tasks are usually jobs of such low priority that not doing them might have no adverse effect at all.

There are numerous ways to designate a particular task with a color. Some people might rate financial impact as the prominent factor and designate the red flag to tasks that either cost (or gain) the company money. For others, it’s simply a matter of how irate their boss will be if the task in question isn’t done in the designated time span.

As every business and employee is different, the most universal system is to rate each task between 1 and 3 in terms of importance and again in terms of urgency. Multiply the two numbers together with tasks rated 7 and over designated red, 4 – 6 as amber, while any task with a number between 1 and 3 becomes a lowly green task.

After your to do list is completed, quickly scan through the items and classify them with the above numbers in your head. Grab some fluorescent pens and mark each task with its respective color, and then review.

To Do:

  • Do take into account previously skipped tasks. If you’ve bumped a task from one day to the next, this task should automatically get a higher priority.
  • Do ignore the rating scale above when appropriate. Something with very high urgency but low impact could still be deemed a red task and vice versa. Purchasing a leaving gift for a departing colleague might by 1 in importance and 3 in urgency (making it a green task) but you should make it a red anyway, as it needs to be done quickly. The scale is not perfect and there will always be exceptions to the rules.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t make everything red. Not only would that demoralize you completely, it’s important to remember that prioritization is relative. In theory, you should have an equal number of tasks of each color. The logic here is that it’s simply not possible to give everything the same priority. Something always has a higher relevance than another task upon reflection. Also, a task that is red on one day could also be amber another day. It all depends on what other tasks are on the list.

Go Digital

There are a number of very good products on the market that make the hassle of finding colored pens and scraps of paper totally redundant. Remember the Milk and Todoist are two of the more popular applications out there with free versions that are likely more than adequate for your to do needs.

Digital to do lists are also a great way of keeping a historical record of your workload. How often do you keep old post-its or journals of what you did a few years ago?

These applications allow you to bundle tasks into groups and quickly assign color-coded prioritization. Digital to do lists are also a great way of keeping a historical record of your workload. How often do you keep old post-its or journals of what you did a few years ago?

To Do:

  • Do try out different products before settling on the one for you. What works for one person may not work for you.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t rely completely on online versions. Sometimes there’s nothing better than just jotting down a quick list in a meeting or when you’re away from your desk. You can always transfer these tasks to the respective application later.
  • Don’t get fancy. These applications will take up more time to manage, complete and maintain. Inventing a complex system will only have you fumbling with hot-keys and an assortment of groups rather than quickly adding and completing your tasks.

What Not To Do

It’s human nature to want to scratch task after completed task off your list but your to do list should only consist of unique tasks for the day. “Reading Email” may indeed qualify as a legitimate task but it’s a safe bet that you likely do this every day and will do it without prompting or reminder.

Cluttering your to do list with mundane and ancillary tasks might allow you to scratch off a larger number of tasks for the day but you’re actually defeating the purpose. A to do list is a formulated plan, not a shopping list.

“Reading Email” may indeed qualify as a legitimate task but it’s a safe bet that you likely do this every day and will do it without prompting or reminder.

To Do:

  • Do keep your to do list concise and devoid of recurring or regular tasks. If you fill in a time-sheet each day, you don’t need your to do list to remind you of this.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t bend the truth. Lunch is not a task. Neither is making coffee—unless it’s a coffee meeting. That’s different.
  • Don’t flood your list with superfluous micro-tasks. It’s tempting, but over-filling your list in order to feel like your making headway through your workload is counter-productive.

If a task is very small, actually do it rather than adding it to your list. Use your to do list as inspiration for getting a host of small things done before you leave for the evening. Confirm a reservation, order stationary, clean up your desktop. We can get a lot of quick things done at the end of the day if we put our minds to it.

Quantify Your Results

Tasks on a to do list should be punchy, succinct and contain at least one action verb. Words like “Finish” and “Complete” are what you’re looking for. Stay clear of terms such as “Start” or “Investigate”. Starting something is easy. Focus on the stopping part. Similarly, if you find one of your to do list tasks to be a tad nebulous, it’s likely going to be quite hard to strike it off with a satisfactory “Done!” swipe of your pen.

Stay clear of terms such as “Start” or “Investigate”. Starting something is easy. Focus on the stopping part.

Avoid describing the action and pin-point the result. A task like: “Talk to Jeff re: options of what to do about the GUI” has no definitive outcome. You can talk to Jeff but how do you know you won’t be talking to him again about the same topic tomorrow unless you set an objective? To do lists have the handy knock-on effect of strengthening direction and making people goal-oriented. “Talk to Jeff and agree on an option for the GUI.” Now we’re getting there!

To Do:

  • Quantify your results. Never bog your to do list down with tasks that are immeasurable. Such indefinite tasks are guaranteed to never get off your list. If you know a task can’t be completed on the day in question, either aim for a percentage of the task in a set time scale or identify a milestone and set this as your goal instead. “Work on financial report” will have you there until midnight. “Complete sections 1 and 2 of financial report” will have you home at a respectable hour.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t put the completion of a task on your list that has a deadline in the future. Adding “Complete report before Friday” on Tuesday’s list is a prime example of a task that is just going to be ignored until Friday. Of course, your to do list should not only comprise of today’s work schedule but also elements of tasks that will end sometime in the future. Break these tasks down into logical units and focus on the segments. “Friday’s Big Report: Complete analysis of shipping data today” is a good task for a Tuesday.
  • Don’t try and chronicle your day. No one is that prescient. Remember that a to do list is not a diary. To do lists should never be in chronological order or take the format of an essay. You’ll spend more time planning the day rather than actually working it.

Your to do list will probably tell less than half the story of how you spend your working day.

You’ve Got More To Do Than What’s On Your List

If you ever feel that your to do list is ruling (or ruining) your life, you need to take a step back and review how you are drafting your lists. Your day will undoubtedly consist of many tasks that you did not plan when drafting your list the day before. An impromptu request from your manager to write a report? Urgent call to head-office to mitigate a growing situation? Your to do list will probably tell less than half the story of how you spend your working day.

Always leave enough room for day-to-day tasks and other unplanned events that naturally appear during office hours.

To Do:

  • Do remember that some things will take longer than expected while other tasks will take less time than originally planned.
  • Do review your list with an objective eye. If your to do list is full of tasks likely to take up the majority of the day, consider possibly moving some orange and green tasks to the next day or see if you can delegate certain tasks to other members of staff.

To Don’t:

  • Don’t get demotivated if, at the end of the day, there’s more things unfinished on your list than completed. Maybe you earmarked too much for one day or a number of unforeseen events absorbed a lot of your working time. “Didn’t-Do Remorse Syndrome” is the feeling of looking at a mostly incomplete to do list and feeling despondent due to not getting through as much as you originally had hoped to.
  • To do lists are not sacrosanct and should be seen as your aspiration for the day. We all aim to get a lot done in the time we’re at the office but some days are better than others. Accept an unfinished to do list as what it is: an opportunity to finish it the next day. There’s nothing stopping you from moving the open tasks to tomorrow’s list and tackling them again with a new day’s freshness.

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  1. Luke Lux on the 10th September

    Your new site looks clean and simple. At the same time is a pleasure to go through it.

    Well done!

  2. Dave on the 10th September

    Great New Site!! Also great posts so far 🙂

  3. lawrence77 on the 10th September

    cool…. ToDo

  4. Jordan on the 10th September

    Wow, that was a really thorough article. I found myself guilty of committing some To Do List sins :/ eeep. Really great though. This design is banging.

  5. Niki Brown | The Design O'Blog on the 10th September

    … WOW another blog! Looks amazing! Great work Envato!!!

    On another note – I find that using text edit on my mac works great for to-do lists. I usually have 2-5 items that i absolutely need to accomplish for the day and those stay on top. Everything else is hidden by resizing the document 🙂

  6. Jizzle on the 10th September

    This is one mean ass blog. Sick layout. Im digging it.


  7. v-render on the 10th September

    great article ..

  8. Maicon on the 10th September

    Very good design and useful articles.

  9. Dickie on the 10th September

    DO keep up the good work! great post

  10. DemoGeek on the 11th September

    Digital ToDo lists are much more useful and convenient and flexible than their post-it counterparts. If you’d rather prefer to see the list of items to do in a big bold print version then, of course, you can print your digital todo list and place it where you’d place those post-its. Just a thought.

    BTW, Congrats on the new site…looks beautiful!

  11. Mike Smith on the 11th September

    This is an awesome article and an awesome design. Great work Envato. I’ll be submitting articles soon – hopefully I can become a part of this awesome work site 🙂

  12. Jester Monkey on the 11th September

    I also found to be a great online task management application.

  13. Brad Fitzgerald on the 11th September

    I recently started using Google’s Tasks inside of Google Calendar – wow! That’s a sweet way to get a To Do list going!

  14. Jaysone on the 11th September

    Thank you for this article.

  15. Vin Thomas on the 11th September

    Great stuff. Another great Digital ToDo list is Toodledo. You can’t forget them!

  16. Jasmin Halkic on the 11th September

    Very nice post. New website is awesome.

  17. John E on the 11th September

    What a great post. Thanks. I’ll definitely be using some of these ideas in my work process going forward. And with three proposals currently in the works, I’m going to need it!

  18. Kay Elizabeth on the 11th September

    Wonderful article, thanks so much for the guidance! I’m already all signed up for the email subscriptions. I know a good thing when I see it. 🙂 Best of luck with the new venture!

  19. Ceasaigh on the 11th September

    Great site! This article is really helpful – definitely got me thinking about being more organized/productive. I feel like I have no excuse not to be now.

  20. Ivan Mišić on the 11th September

    Great tips

  21. Amber Weinberg on the 11th September

    I tend to overuse lists sometimes, and have to cut myself back. I think I’m anal when it comes to organization. That would be a first for a creative type wouldn’t it? LOL 😉

  22. Ethan Anderson on the 11th September

    Very good article. I plan on trying a couple of these ideas tomorow… For you BlackBerry nuts, here is the best to-do list manager bar none… actually it’s the reason I still use BlackBerry… ToDoMatrix

  23. Steven Couper on the 11th September

    LOVING THIS SITE, im well chuffed, i can tell i will be on this lots!!!


  24. Benjamin Reid on the 11th September

    That is some real detail of how to write a to-do list. Fortunately I use The Hit List

  25. prem Kiran on the 11th September

    very help full info

  26. Drupal Development on the 11th September

    Nice post.

  27. Nathan on the 11th September

    Love the site!

    If you want a really simple To Do list then check out 37signal’s TaDa List (

  28. Elizabeth K. Barone on the 12th September

    I’m the queen of to do lists; I write one for everything! I’ve been trying to get better organized and more productive. These are great tips and will hopefully help me accomplish that!

  29. Leena on the 12th September

    Hey, that was a very useful article, I´m going to apply some tips, like the color system and do the list for tomorrow haha
    Like other I felt guilty of do some of the don´ts
    Thank you for your tips!

  30. Ben Rama on the 12th September

    cool article i have 3 note books with all my to do lists that help me keep on trackk of projects – i agree with all said points

    nice site design collis


  31. FoxyOrb on the 13th September

    This type of blog is quite useful. I have no doubt it will become very popular. I have a point, I don’t understand. In the “Color coded prioritization” hint you mention “the most universal system is to rate each task between 1 and 3 in terms of importance and again in terms of urgency. Multiply the two numbers together with tasks rated 7 and over designated red…” How can you get the number 7 by multiplying two sets of 1,2 or 3.

  32. Stephan on the 13th September

    Great post! I highly recommend reading ‘Getting Things Done’ which is the perfect book in understanding your mind in order to be productive.
    The main goal of a to do list is not having the actual list, but getting all those actions you feel you need to do out of your head!
    If you can afford it, you guys should try Things by Cultured Code (Mac) to organize your tasks and projects.

  33. David Turnbull on the 13th September

    In terms of going digital with a to do list I usually find going back to just pen and paper keeps things simpler because you’re both limited to what you can write and there isn’t any room for procrastination.

    Using a system like Things (which I own) often just leads to the end user focusing on how to make themselves really efficient at the to do list app, and therefore getting nothing important done.

    But still, Things on the iPhone is pretty sexy, and is less distracting, so if you’re an iPhone user and want to go digital then it’s a good choice.

  34. Gustavs Cirulis on the 14th September

    Thanks for the great article! It really inspired me!

  35. Alison Rowan on the 14th September

    I always like an article with very practical, tangible tips and this was full of them. I especially liked that points about making items on the list concrete, such as “Discuss with ____ and settle on _____” rather than “Talk to ______ about _____.” I’m sure I’ll be able to apply some of these suggestions to my own to-do list.

  36. andrew on the 15th September

    43 folders!

  37. Tricia on the 15th September

    Enjoyed the article – some really good tips – so I decided to give Todolist a try – maybe I’m super thick but I can’t figure out how to organise my list as I would like it – it seems to have become a much bigger task than I am prepared to make it. Just to find out how to do what should be a simple thing – sure I could sit for ages and watch a video of how someone organises their numerous projects but I can’t get beyond a list of overdue tasks. Not what I want at all. There doesn’t appear to be a how to get started help file. I went to support and was extremely disappointed to see numerous posts from people wanting to know how to delete their files &, how to remove an account. Some of these requests were a year old and no-one had been answered!! There was even someone who had paid for premium account still being billed for service they no longer wanted. None of this information was available prior to signing up. The support pages are only available via Sadly I shall be a lot more cautious following advice in future.

  38. Charity on the 16th September

    Some terrific pointers here and I must say I’m also guilty of some of the Don’t Dos. I use Things and love it, but one feature I’ve always felt was missing is a way to visually prioritize items with colored labels or tags. I also use a Moleskine notebook for offline or on the go to-dos so I’ll give the highlighter idea a try.

    P.S. There’s a discrepancy in the article worth noting. In the first section under “When to do it” you wrote “Put aside 15 minutes at the end of each day to write tomorrow’s to do list.” But in the bulleted list beneath, one of the items is “Don’t start tomorrow’s to do list at the very end of the day….”

  39. arnold on the 20th September

    nice post…Im going to take notes of this,because Im not that good at planning and scheduling. Now this website is also awesome.

  40. Enk. on the 20th September

    Great tips there.. interesting read.
    Cool new Blog by Envato, Keep up the good work guys !! 😉
    And I really really love the new envative (innonvative) layout/looks.. really cool UI ..

    The post was really great, but as the article was pretty long, An image or two in the middle would look great.. just a tip.

    Anyways, great going !

  41. Claire on the 23rd September

    Awesome!! Loved this advice. I need to read these kind of tips, and be inspired to keep chugging along the path. At times I feel overwhelmed and frustrated, but reading this makes me take a step back to breath and venture forward again with new insight & positivity. Thanks so much 🙂

  42. Neel on the 4th October

    Nice new site. Also great article to manage all the work. i really inspired by your article.

  43. Steve on the 17th November

    Hello. I’ve been building a new app that, among other things, lets you keep to-do lists.

    It ain’t just the standard list that can be shuffled around though. It’s a virtual whiteboard, complete with coloured sticky notes.

    I built it to scratch my own itch because I use a lot of to-do lists and was getting annoyed with having to click an option to re-arrange my list, then click again to edit and so on.

    Check it out if you’ve got ten minutes to spare. Any feedback is more than welcome. I have a bunch of extra features to add and it would be great to know what you think.

    • Tricia on the 18th November

      @Steve. Just had a look at your website.
      You asked for feedback so here’s my humble opinion

      Great concept – looks easy to manage.
      Generally I thought your site appealing – the sticky note concept is great. I’m using Windows 7 (beta, about to install the full release) I use the sticky notes feature quite a lot, but I can’t save and I can’t add another.

      I would have liked to see the tour page button higher up the hierarchy so first time site visitors can quickly understand and decide if it’s for them. I like the big call to action on the home page.

      Unfortunately there are a couple of things that would stop me (and probably others) from following up on that call. You haven’t said if how much it costs! If there is a free version – shout it out! I’m sure you would get more response.
      The second thing would be the privacy and terms & conditions policies which aren’t available. Are you planning on adding these later?
      I think to do so makes your site more professional and therefore implies trust and quality. Might be a good idea to add them.

      Something I didn’t like was the continually moving alternating page graphic which became annoying very quickly. Not sure how you would solve this, but a smoother transition might make it less annoying. I really wanted to leave that page but was looking for the how to use info
      I had gone to the site because you asked for feedback – otherwise I’m not sure I would have stayed long enough to find out how it worked.

      Oh dear that all sounds negative, but that’s not how I feel about what you have done. The site is generally attractive and simple – and appealing.
      I’m very interested in what you offer and so I will follow on twitter. Great to put in the link!
      Well done and Good Luck!

  44. steve on the 19th November


    Thanks for taking the time to check it out, I really appreciate it.

    Embarrassingly I managed to break the site in IE just before I commented on here – fixed now, you weren’t the only one to spot that!

    I never noticed how annoying the bounce was on the scrolling images until you mentioned it – have removed that and slowed the scroll. I’m going to make some other changes based on your other suggestions too.

    Thanks again,

    • Tricia on the 19th November

      Happy to hear that my opinion helped! It’s amazing when you get involved in a design how some things just don’t get noticed – no matter how much you look critically at them! It’s good to be have a critique. Have you heard of they offer “simple easy feedback on your designs” and it’s free! They are on twitter too.
      I’m looking forward to checking out your site again later.

      Keep up the good work

  45. Ben Brooks on the 3rd December

    This is a great guide for not just new users of To-Do lists, but those of use that have been making them for a a while.

    I am glad you addressed the fact that many people fill to-do lists with superfluous tasks that we would do anyways just to feel good about checking them off.


  46. Vunky on the 5th January

    Great write-up. I tend to switch between paper and digital todo list. Just like you said: don’t rely on just digital versions

  47. André Orvalho on the 15th January

    You all should try this. clean and effective to-do-list

  48. butterbescotch on the 21st April

    Thanks very helpful!

  49. Modasser Hossain on the 26th July

    Really practical and also helpful advice.

  50. bassam on the 26th September

    very wonderful advice thanks a lot

  51. Jack on the 4th November

    I am using this site to keep track of the things I want to do. The site is called, To Do Alive and you can see how I manage my To Do lists there:

    Hope that helped. Cheers.

  52. Thiago Paulino on the 11th November

    Man, I’ve tryed every single todo list that comments suggested, al crap.


    Awesome system. Extremely quick, simple and free for ever!

    Just try it, you wont regret.


  53. photoshop to html on the 18th November

    The best way to make a to do list is first, make it awesome so you actually want to look at it. Try using PSD, they make the best stuff.

  54. John on the 24th January

    Wow, great article 🙂
    thanks 🙂

  55. Jimmy on the 26th April

    Save paper and use its the best list tool about

  56. Rick T on the 5th May

    Hey Lee, you have written a really useful post. One can definitely become a prof of to do’s and task management following the advice. To do list is something that needs to be managed with time. If you can’t manage the time allocated the concept of to do is defeated. Using the various software tools available may be cumbersome and much more time consuming than the simple paper pencil thing. However, we are now having much easier tools like cctodo to do list manager where adding , deleting and accessing the todo’s is a maater of single click.

    Your advice combined with such simple tools can definitely boost productivity.

  57. Carloss on the 17th November

    I do mine online and it ismy homepage so when i log in i get it straight away.

  58. Miss Bee on the 17th November

    I found this article very helpful.

    You made a very good point regarding: setting an objective and not putting everything in red.

    Thank you!

  59. Dani Silbermann on the 3rd December

    great article – thanks! also try – its one of the easiest to use web apps i have found when it comes to creating a simple yet effective task list

  60. Cubicle on the 15th January

    I think this was the best part:

    To Do:
    Do keep your to do list concise and devoid of recurring or regular tasks. If you fill in a time-sheet each day, you don’t need your to do list to remind you of this.
    To Don’t:
    Don’t bend the truth. Lunch is not a task. Neither is making coffee—unless it’s a coffee meeting. That’s different.
    Don’t flood your list with superfluous micro-tasks. It’s tempting, but over-filling your list in order to feel like your making headway through your workload is counter-productive.

    It also makes you create systems for those things you have to do daily or weekly. That way you don’t overblow the severity of something and you stay on point longer.

  61. Marvin Williams on the 6th March

    There are many good points in this post. EFFECTIVE to-do lists are the key to success, and I’ve recently reintroduced a product called ScanCard Organizer. It’s not digital, but can be more effective because all your tasks can be moved around and prioritized–no sticky notes or colored markers required! All of its capabilities fit perfectly with your tips, especially the one about not creating the to-do list at the beginning of your day. With ScanCard Organizer, your to-do list is constantly being updated and crossed off so it’s a natural part of your entire day.

  62. Jessie on the 9th December

    Hear hear (or is it here, here? I never know! ) For digital to-do lists, you should try it has a sweet “Daylist” feature that I use to sort out Tip 1 every evening, then turn up and just look at what I have to do that day.

  63. Ashley Andrews on the 5th January

    Thanks for such a detailed and insightful post, Lee – it’s great!

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