15 secrets for making a to-do list that actually works

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsJanuary 11th, 20218 min read
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A to-do list is just a list of things you have to-do. That means basically anything and everything can be on your to-do list—but just because you’ve written your to-dos down doesn’t mean your to-do list is actually useful. Effectively tracking when your work is due can help you prioritize and get great work done. But too often, that list of work to-dos is disorganized and disconnected from the actual work you’re doing—which leads to less clarity and more work about work.

The good news is, writing a to-do list doesn’t have to be an exercise in futility. Take control of your to-dos with these 15 secrets for making a to-do list that actually works.

First thing’s first: Say goodbye to the written to-do list

If you haven’t already, the first step for creating a to-do list that actually works is to build it in a to-do list app. Written to-do lists provide the wonderfully satisfying feeling of crossing something off, but they’re also the worst way to keep track of your to-dos. The truth of the matter is, a written to-do list is disorganized, prone to mistakes, easy to lose, and ineffective.

Instead, get started with a to-do list app. Unlike a written to-do list, the benefits of a to-do list app include:

  • Sorting and prioritizing work. If you want to change the order of your written to-do list, you have to rewrite the whole thing. But with a to-do list app, you can easily drag and drop items. Not only that—most to-do list apps offer a way to track priority with custom tags.

  • Impossible to lose. Unlike a handwritten to-do list, you can’t “lose” an online to-do list. You’ll always have access to the list, so you can jot down to-dos wherever you are.

  • Add additional context to your to-dos. Most to-do list apps offer a way for you to add additional information in the description. In a written to-do list, all you have are a couple of words to describe what you need to work on. But with a to-do list app each to-do has an expandable description, where you can add any relevant task details, working docs, or important information.

  • Create separate lists in the same place. Before you choose a to-do list app, make sure you can create more than one “list” in the app. You might want to create a to-do list for personal work, another for your team’s work, and a third for your professional development, for example. A to-do list app with multiple list options allows you to store all of these to-dos in one place.

  • Set due dates, reminders, and notifications. Your to-dos don’t mean much if they’re not done in time. With a to-do list app, you can track when work is due, and set up reminders or notifications to make sure you get your to-dos done in time.

  • Collaboration. When your individual to-do list is organized and your priorities are clear, you can better contribute to team projects and initiatives. In other words, the more organized you are, the easier it’ll be to collaborate with your team.

Try to do lists with Asana for free

If you’re looking for a to-do list app, try Asana. Asana is a work management tool designed to help you organize your work so you know exactly what to do, why it matters, and how to get it done. Use Asana to track your work and connect it back to larger projects, loop in teammates, and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Make better to do lists - My Tasks Example

15 secrets for a better to-do list

If you’re ready to take your to-do list to the next level, try these 15 tips to maximize your clarity and reduce inefficiencies. Note that most of these tips assume you’re using a to-do list app to organize your work and increase productivity.

1. Capture everything

It’s better to write something down and mark it as complete later than to forget what you wanted to do in the first place. Oftentimes, some of our best brainstorming come when we’re not prepared to write them down—but inspiration doesn’t wait to strike. If you have a passing thought about something you could do to improve a project or a great idea to pitch to your boss, simply add it to your to-do list.

This is also why it’s important to choose a to-do list app with a great mobile experience. That way, if you’re on the go, you can jot down a note without having to remember it until you get back to your computer.

Reducing the reliance on the human brain and memory makes life easier for your future self. Asana helps us decrease cognitive load for people and provide clarity.

2. Lists, lists, and more lists

One of the reasons to-do lists get so overwhelming is they tend to contain a random mishmash of everything. You might be working on multiple projects at work, and trying to store a reminder to review your upcoming campaign brief next to a note about sourcing vendors for an event can get confusing—fast. No wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed.

To take control of your to-do list and get your best work done, consider making more than one list. For example, make sure each project or large initiative has its own list. Additionally, consider creating one list for work that’s immediately actionable, another for future project ideas, and a third for personal reminders. That way, you can open the to-do list that’s relevant to the work you’re doing right now, in order to better focus on what you need to get done.

Learn more: A better online to-do list app for work

3. Organize your to-do list by workflow, priority, or due date

Re-organizing your to-do list every day is a waste of time—even if it is sometimes fun. Resist the temptation by creating a really great structure to your to-do list. If your app supports it, consider building sections for different types of work. That way, you can sort work by project or priority, depending on your preferences.

Make better to do lists - priority and workflow

4. Make it actionable

Your to-do list is not the place to store thoughts or goals. Those details are important to capture, but if you keep everything in one to-do list your important work might get lost or buried. Instead, aim to capture those items in a project management tool or goal management system. That way, you still have access to all of your one-off thoughts and important goals, without cluttering your to-do list.

Even though it's important to store thoughts and goals separately from your main, actionable to-do list, having to switch between muliple tools can get overwhelming, fast. Instead, look for a way to capture all of this information in the same tool, like Asana.

5. Verbs first, details later

In addition to making sure every to-do is actionable, we recommend starting most to-do titles off with a verb. While this isn’t a make-or-break rule, starting to-dos with a verb will help you know exactly what each to-do is about.

For example, the to-do Three Facebook ad images, doesn't tell you much. If you add “design” to the front of the to-do title, all of a sudden the to-do is actionable and clear: Design three Facebook ads images. To-do lists with verb titles give you at-a-glance insight into what’s on your plate.

6. Prioritize your to-dos

In order to make sure you get the right work done on time, it’s important to know which of your to-dos are most important. Whether you put the most important to-dos at the top or use custom tags to flag priority, make sure you have visibility into your critical work, so you don’t miss anything.

Read: How to prioritize your most important work

That isn’t to say you have to do your most important work first. Sometimes, starting the day off with an easy task is the best way to get the ball rolling. Or maybe you live by the 80/20 rule, which says you can complete 80% of your work in 20% of the time, and you like getting those out of the way. Even if you don’t do your high priority work first, make sure you know what you need to do before the day is out.

I used to come home, put my son to bed at eight, and then I would be on my email until midnight, trying to fundamentally sort through chains and what was happening. And now, I literally can blast through my Asana because I know exactly what’s important.

7. Always include a deadline

When it comes to hitting your to-dos, you don’t just need to know what to do—you also need to know when to do it by. Finishing all of your important tasks doesn’t mean much if they’re finished on the wrong day. In other words, you always need to know who’s doing what by when. Even if you don’t have a hard deadline, it’s better to jot down a date and move it than miss the deadline all together.

8. Break big work into smaller tasks

One of the biggest struggles with accurately hitting your to-dos is seeing something that’s due tomorrow but then realizing, “Woah, this is actually a week’s worth of work.”

If you frequently run into this problem, consider breaking work into smaller tasks. Maybe your work isn’t due until Friday, but it’s a big task that’s going to take multiple days to complete. Having that work broken up into to-dos you can complete earlier on in the week will be critical to your project’s success.

Asana allowed us to see the overall amount of work that we were actually doing, and then it allowed us to be able to reprioritize and re-strategize the types of work that we were doing.

9. Batch similar tasks

When you work in batches, you’re not only hitting your to-dos—you’re also increasing your productivity. Every time you switch tasks or start on a new project, your brain needs some time to adjust and recalibrate. The truth is, humans aren’t actually good at multitasking, so the more to-dos you can group together, the easier it’ll be on your brain.

In particular, look out for daily work that you could batch and simplify. If there are things you do every day, you probably don’t even think about how long you’re spending on them—but that time can really add up. If you have daily tasks, take note of how long they’re actually taking you. Then, see if you can be more efficient with them. Can you batch them or automate them? Removing this work not only cleans up your to-do list, but makes you more productive.

10. Celebrate your progress

Every time you check something off your to-do list, you’ve accomplished something. That’s a big deal! You should celebrate, even if it’s only a little pat on the back.

At Asana, one of our core company values is heartitude—a made up word, sure, but one that’s near and dear to our hearts. Heartitude means taking time to have fun and create meaningful experiences during your working day. If you’ve ever used Asana, you might see unicorns and yetis fly across your screen when you mark a to-do complete. Why? The real question is—why not?

Asana's features, like unicorns flying across the screen when you complete a task, make work less of a ‘have to’ and more like a fun experience.
Make better to do lists - Asana celebrations

11. Triage your list at the end of the day

Instead of spending half of your morning combing through your to-do list, organize your tasks the night before so, when you log on, you already know exactly what’s on the docket. By spending five to 10 minutes the night before, you can make sure you’re ready to take on the day immediately the next morning.

12. Turn off notifications

Notifications are a huge benefit to getting good work done, and any good to-do list app will have notifications to spare. What’s equally important, though, is a “snooze” or Do Not Disturb feature. Ultimately, you’re organizing your work so you can be more productive—and sometimes that means you need to focus, instead of being distracted by a random ping.

Distractions are costly, so we've focused on eliminating them wherever we can. With Asana, people are able to get into a flow and do their work without disruption because everyone knows where things stand and what they're responsible for—no stand up required.
Read: 7 tips for finding focus and reducing digital distractions

13. Track what you don’t need to do

You don’t want to sink time into unimportant work. So while you always want to capture details in your to-do list, it’s also important to cull it when necessary.

If you’re tracking to-do priority, you already have insight into what’s most and least important. Then, if necessary, don’t be afraid to deprioritize work. Tracking your to-dos isn’t about doing every little thing every single day—it’s about getting control of your tasks so you can get your most important work done.

14. Watch for stragglers

We all have those tasks that were due last week that we still haven’t gotten around to doing yet. But if you notice those tasks, ask yourself why they haven’t been done. What’s keeping you from them? Do you need to reprioritize them, or delegate them to someone else? Is there something about the task that you don’t understand that’s holding you back? Knowing why you’re delaying can help you be more efficient and nip those stragglers in the bud.

15. Collaborate on one platform

Ideally, you don’t want to track your to-dos in a vacuum. Being organized and prioritized is only so helpful if you don’t have visibility into your team’s work—and vice versa. The most effective teams are those that share a central source of truth for where work is happening. That way, everyone knows exactly who’s responsible for which tasks, and you can focus on getting your best work done as a team.

Naturally, we think Asana is a pretty good way to do this. With Asana, your team can organize what to do, why it matters, and how to get it done. That way, you’re not the only one benefiting from increased clarity and reduced inefficiencies.

Learn more

Check “learn how to make a to-do list” off the list

Making a to-do list is about getting organized and gaining visibility into your work—and with these 15 tips, you’ll do just that. But if you’re looking to make a to-do list to track work, you also need a way to give and gain visibility into your team members’ work. Look for a to-do list that offers additional robust features like task management and project management.

Interested in learning more? Read about the benefits of project management with Asana.

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