Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective With These 5 Simple Hacks

Our personal to-do lists are the little action plans that get things done in our day-to-day worlds. I'm a firm believer in the power of lists and am not embarrassed to admit that I'd be lost without my own little index of tasks every day. I find making my list to be an exercise in reflection and organization, and I feel supremely satisfied when I'm able to add a big, bold check-mark and turn even the smallest to-do into a done!

But any system can stand some improvement. If you feel like your to-do list has become more of a wish-list lately, here are five ways to make it more powerful and effective. (See also: How to Create a Reasonable To-Do List)

1. Get Emotional

We all know that each item on our to-do lists matters, but that doesn't mean they're all equal. By following this technique detailed by Robyn Scott and attaching an emotion to each item on our list, we can better prioritize and subtly motivate ourselves toward the positive feeling that completion brings. How will washing your car make you feel — more comfortable? Relieved? What about finally organizing those wedding photos — accomplished? Proud? At peace? Consider the power of emotion as not only a motivator and a driver; make basking in the emotion part of your reward as each to-do is checked off. (See also: 9 Ways to Maintain Motivation)

2. Attach a Reward

Physical rewards work. Though we often reserve them for kids and pets, treats motivate adult humans, too. Attach a commensurate reward with each task you accomplish. Maybe finally picking up the dry-cleaning earns you a cappuccino, or each day of sticking with your exercise routine gets you a 15 minute nap after dinner. Make every reward something you'll truly appreciate, and try to consciously enjoy each one. (See also: 21 Frugal Ways to Reward Yourself)

3. Ditch Those Vague Verbs

Take the corporate-speak out of your to-do list. Verbs like "implement," "explore," "plan," "discuss," and "touch-base" turn actionable to-dos into fuzzy undones.

Precise language helps us understand what needs to be accomplished and lets us know when we've accomplished it. If it helps, break larger, more ambiguous verbs into smaller and simpler ones:

  • Replace "plan" with "draft"
  • Replace "touch base" with "meet"
  • Replace "discuss" with "call."

If you still feel foiled by vague verbs, attach a time-limit like "meet for 15 minutes" or "brainstorm ideas for half an hour."

4. Create Dependencies

For the more significant tasks on our to-do lists, it's important to understand the smaller tasks that support it. For instance, if you'd like to complete your taxes by the end of next week (a doozie on anyone's list, to be sure), begin by working backwards. What does that large task depend on, and how could breaking it down into bite-sized daily to-dos make it seem less intimidating? Maybe Monday and Tuesday will be devoted to organizing receipts, maybe Wednesday will be reserved for reviewing deductions, and Thursday will be all about crunching the numbers and preparing to file. (See also: 6 Tips for Organizing Your Finances)

Make each sub-task a small but essential part of daily to-do list and by Friday, that dragon you have to slay will seem more like a harmless little toad.

5. Identify the MVTs

Not every task on our to-do list carries the same weight or importance. As you determine what's on each day's agenda, identify the MVTs, or Most Valuable Tasks. These are the time-sensitive things that absolutely must get done each day, even to the exclusion (if necessary) of everything else. But be realistic and conservative in giving MVT status to a task — if everything on your list is do-or-die, then the designation becomes meaningless and few things will end up getting done.

Remember, MVTs should come with MVRs (Most Valuable Rewards), be built around smaller dependent tasks, include action verbs, and be paired with the emotions that accomplishment will bring.

Every person's to-do list is unique, and I'm sure there are countless tricks and strategies folks have developed to keep those check-marks flowing. The most important quality of any list is simple — it's got to work day in and day out for its author. As our lives become more or less complex, as our jobs change, and as our kids get older and more independent, our approach to list-making will change, too. The key is being flexible enough to embrace what works and to always stay motivated.

Do you have a daily to-do list? How to you prioritize tasks and keep yourself motivated as you work through it?

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Guest's picture

I have severe fatigue issues. So I have to balance between what I want to get and what I can feasibly get done. Thanks to depression, I also have to be careful how much I put on a list, lest I feel overwhelmed by the number -- or upset with how "little" I've accomplished.

So I try to make lists of several items -- some easy, some more involved -- and try to get 1-2 done each day. I find that I shouldn't list more than 5. And I try to always start with an easy one. It can help me feel empowered and maybe spur me on to tackle another one. That said, there are days when nothing gets done, and I have to make peace with that. Beating myself up just wastes what little energy I have.

And, yes, I've been known to do an errand, realize it's not on the list, write it down and cross it off. It's important to be able to point to the things you've done in a day, especially when they'll be very limited.

Kentin Waits's picture

Abigail -- Thanks for your comment. I confess, I do the same thing when I complete a task that's not on my list! It does help to be able to point to the things you've accomplished in a day. :)

Guest's picture

Hi Kentin, This is a good list that looks a lot like what I do to avoid procrastination. I guess being productive is pretty much the antithesis to procrastination.

Guest's picture

I spend the last few minutes at work each day creating the next day's list. Sometimes things get carried over day to day. My lists help me feel like I'm moving forward, even if the tasks are "filing" or "take payroll to office manager." I can leave work at work and not worry that I'm forgetting some important task.