Productivity Improvement | 08.10.2015

Mastering the Art of the Effective To-Do List

“Before you eat the elephant, make sure you know what parts you want to eat.”  ― Todd Stocker

Many successful people, business leaders and entrepreneurs aloud the to-do list as one of the most effective ways to be more productive, organized and focused and for better time management. Everybody has his/ her own preference of creating lists – some prefer it to be on a post-it note, others have their well-maintained diary and some of us are more comfortable with the digital avatars which can be with us on our desktop or smartphones. Whatever may be the preference, just creating an exhaustive list of to-do items isn’t enough to actually accomplish them.

Here are some of the essentials for creating an effective to-do list –

Differentiate between Projects and Tasks

David Allen, the famous productivity guru, and author of Getting Things Done, has very rightly differentiated between projects and tasks – tasks are small and focused things which you can act on whereas; projects are collections of tasks. “Cleaning of office” is a project and not a task. It can include tasks like “cleaning up the cabinet” or “shredding papers”. It is important that when you make a to-do list, you make a list of tasks and not of projects. Vague items on the to-do lists lead to procrastination.

On this similar line of thinking, inspirational writer SARK suggests breaking down the tasks into five-minute increments called “micromovements.” She suggests completing the projects by completing the tasks which take 5 minutes or less. One of the biggest benefits of breaking down the big task into sub-tasks is that it forces you to do affront thinking and make the items more do-able. For example: “Upgrade website” is a big task but “Define 5 must-haves on the website” is a more do-able sub-task.

Tip – Break down large tasks into small but specific sub-tasks.


As Dwight D. Eisenhower has famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Prioritizing the tasks based on importance and date by when those need to be completed is a good method for narrowing down the task list and getting the essential tasks done. In one of his interviews with Jaime Tardy, Rob Rawson, CEO of and, shares a tip – he suggests that one should procrastinate some tasks without feeling the pressure of doing everything on your list. Some of the items in the list many not have the same urgency later!

Tip – David Allen suggests that if any item on your list can be done in less than 2 minutes, then do it immediately. Else, delegate it or do it later.

Be Elaborate

One of the key things of effective to-do lists is that the items define very specific actions. This also means that a lot of thinking goes in while preparing the list. The tasks are almost like specific instructions. For example: Instead of listing the task as  “Contact the plumber”,  it could be more specific like “Phone XYZ at XXX-XXX-XXXX for plumbing work on Tuesday”. When you actually get on to doing the work, you will realize that it can be done very easily and effectively when the instructions are so clear. Being elaborate and clear helps in avoiding the thinking burnout while actually doing the task.

Tip – List making needs to be a thinking job. Imagine as if you are making the list for your assistant and you need to make it easy for her to execute the tasks – Use active verbs and be as specific as you can.

Be Realistic

Never-ending to-do lists can lead to procrastination and eventually to exhaustion. Endless tasks lists can overwhelm and frustrate you and give you a feeling of not achieving anything. Experts suggest that a more realistic to-do list should contain no more than 5 items – 3 main things and 2 small tasks. This 3+2 rule can help you be more focused on a particular task, help you be more mindful when you are doing the task and you will need to switch between the tasks possibly only 4 times in day!

Tip – Sometimes unexpected things can crop up (car breaks down, child gets sick, unplanned but important phone call needs attention). Keep a cushion in your schedule to take care of unexpected things so that your whole- day plan does not fall apart.

Frequently Update the List

In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik identified a phenomenon called Zeigarnik Effect. It suggests that our minds tend to get obsessed with unfinished tasks and forget to acknowledge the accomplished ones. A long list of unfinished tasks can make you jittery and stop you from getting anything done today. It is, therefore, important that you carefully study, analyze and reprioritize your to-do list frequently.

Set aside a dedicated time every week to critically review your to-do list. You can possibly re-write the tasks by further breaking those into sub-tasks, delete irrelevant items, or reprioritize the items on your to-do list.  You are sure to feel more in control through this weekly regime. It can help you be more strategic about your energy and focus it on accomplishing the tasks which map with your goals.

Tip – Logging in the completed tasks, from your to-do list or from outside the to-do list, can help you understand where you spent your time and energy. This can provide a great sense of accomplishment and can improve your productivity. Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne dubs it as ‘Anti-To-Do List’.

Here are some don’ts for your to-do lists

  • Don’t list those  items on your to-do list which you don’t intend to focus on. Everything which exists in your real world does not need a reflection in your to-do list.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed by tasks on your list.
  • Don’t have too many items on the list – A research by Sheena Iyengar shows that after about seven options, our brains start to get overwhelmed. With fewer options, our brains can make quicker decisions and therefore acting on those is easier.

research by iDoneThis indicates that 41% of all to-do list items are never completed. Hope this write-up helps you make a list which is different than this J