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How to Write a To-Do List You’ll Actually Do

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Photo: Respiro (Shutterstock)

A to-do list is probably one of the most common strategies for keeping track of tasks and goals. But the problem with long and overly ambitious to-do lists is that they can overwhelm us with how much there is to accomplish, leaving us struggling to prioritize or even knowing where to start. A long list can also increase our desire to multitask, ultimately making us less productive.

Here’s how to make a short, sweet—and effective—to-do list.

How long should a to-do list be?

A good to-do list (or set of lists) has anywhere from five to ten tasks on it—and no more than a dozen in total. While there is no magic number, research suggests that we may struggle to make decisions when presented with more options than that.

One strategy is to make a list of five to eight work-related (or school- or family-) tasks to accomplish for the day with a separate list of two to three chores or personal tasks. Categorizing separately can reduce confusion and help prioritization, which you can break down further by tasks that are important, urgent, both, or neither.

Keep your to-do list focused on the current day rather than the rest of the week or a longer time period—that way, you can complete (or at least attempt to complete) a full list by the end of the day.

Depending on the day, your to-do list may include just one attainable task.

Break it down into small or micro tasks

Your short to-do list should also be clear, specific, and broken down into small and manageable tasks. “Work on work project” probably isn’t going to feel realistic. Instead, write down a specific email you need to send, meeting you need to schedule, report section you need to write, etc.

You can even break an already-small to-do into microtasks: log onto computer, open Gmail, open email from co-worker, etc. Maybe a dozen micro to-dos make up your entire list if that’s what gets you motivated to cross things off.

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