How to Write a Winning To-Do List

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A to-do list written by Johnny Cash recently fetched $6,400 at auction. Cash’s tasks on the list:

  • Not smoke
  • Kiss June
  • Not kiss anyone else
  • Cough
  • Pee
  • Eat
  • Not eat too much
  • Worry
  • Go see mama
  • Practice piano

You may never write a to-do list that ends up selling at auction for thousands of dollars, but you can write one that will boost your productivity, lower your stress level, and make it easier to get through your day. It’s not hard once you get the hang of it. Follow these seven tips below, and you can hammer out a focused to-do list in under 10 minutes.

1. Group tasks

While I’ve always been a to-do list junkie, I used to just write everything down as I thought of it. Consequently, my lists were sloppy and disorganized. Now I group everything into categories. This way I can complete all errands at once without having to dig through my to-do list, or quickly get stuff done when I’m at home. For example, right now my to-do list looks like this:


  • Pick up prescription
  • Return library book
  • Get coffee creamer


  • Update contact list
  • Finish invoicing


  • Laundry
  • Give the pup a bath
  • Organize linen closet

It may seem like more work, but grouping tasks into categories will help you focus on one set of tasks at a time, increasing your productivity.

2. Prioritize

In a perfect world, we’d all have enough time to mark every item off our to-do lists every day. But reality doesn’t always work out that way. Most days I have a few things that must get carried over to the next day, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the really important tasks are getting done. How can you accomplish this? By prioritizing.

There are several ways to prioritize your to-do list. My former boss used different colored Post-it tabs to organize her tasks. My friend lists her tasks in order of importance. I write my most important tasks in red ink so they stand out.

3. Break down big tasks

In college I took a course on business productivity. The professor shared a theory that stuck with me: Our brains are easily bogged down by big jobs, and some people respond to that stress by shutting down and procrastinating.

The theory resonated with me because I can relate. The more I have to do, the less likely I am to actually get anything done. So I’ve learned to sort of trick my brain into doing bigger jobs by breaking them into smaller tasks on my to-do list. For example, my lease is up and I’d like to move, but rather than write “move out” on my to-do list, I wrote:

  • Check Craigslist for apartments
  • Set up three to five rental showings for this week
  • Pack summer clothes

Those are three tasks I could easily do today that will get me a lot closer to finishing the bigger job of moving.

4. Turn goals into smaller jobs

In life you have tasks that you need to do and goals that you want to accomplish. Like big jobs, goals aren’t really that helpful on your to-do list. They’re too large and overwhelming. Instead, write a separate list of your goals and then break those goals down into smaller tasks on your to-do list.

One of my goals is to learn how to knit. I wrote that goal on a separate list and then broke it down into smaller tasks on my to-do list like:

  • Watch the beginning knitters videos Alex suggested
  • Pick up a 10 gauge needle at Michaels
  • Practice 20 rows

By keeping my goals separate, I don’t get discouraged when I can’t mark them off every day. Meanwhile, I’m still making headway through my smaller tasks.

5. Include small accomplishments

Johnny Cash used the same trick that I use on my to-do lists. He listed smaller tasks that he could easily accomplish and mark off. While I wouldn’t include everything you’re likely to do in a day (eat and cough probably don’t need to be on the list), including smaller tasks will motivate you to keep going. I’d imagine that Cash would have gone to see mama without writing it down, but writing it down and then marking it off could have been enough motivation to practice the piano when he got home.

I include three small things I know I can knock out early in the day, and then I mark them off as soon as I complete them. When I revisit my to-do list after lunch, seeing those things crossed off motivates me to cross a few more off. This helps me get more done.

6. Start a someday list

I keep a pretty comprehensive running to-do list, so I’ll end up with a handful of tasks that just stare back at me mockingly for days or even months. Realistically, these tasks aren’t getting done because they’re not a priority, they’re more of a “when I have time” or “maybe I’ll do this one day.” But seeing them day in and day out makes me feel unproductive. So I created a separate someday list. That list includes tasks I would like to do when I have some free time, like organizing my storage shed or repainting my headboard.

Keeping a “someday” list will keep you from forgetting to do the task and save you from feeling overwhelmed.

7. Go digital

Old-fashioned pen and paper to-do lists are simple and effective, but if you really want to step up your productivity try a digital to-do list. Available as both websites and smartphone apps, these digital to-do lists have a few features you won’t get on paper, like:

  • Alarms to warn you when a task needs to be completed
  • Sort and search features to find something quickly
  • Tracking to see what you’ve accomplished in the past

I’ve used Toodledo. The site has a collaborating option that lets me share tasks with my colleagues and friends. Here are a few more free options:

Do you keep a to-do list? Have any great tips for managing all your to-dos? Sound off on our Facebook page and tell us about it.

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