How to make an effective to do list

We all have a lot of things to do and it’s impossible for the human brain to keep track of them all. What did you need from the grocery store again? Which company needed their financial reports completed? When is little Susie’s piano recital and where were you supposed to buy that pretty pink dress?

So, we all use “to-do” lists to try and stay on top of things, but not all to-do lists are made alike. The key is to make an effective to-do list that you’ll actually use. This means that it has to be well organized, convenient, and always close at hand. Let’s see how we can use better to-do lists.

Compartmentalize Your Life

Here’s a concept that I brought up in an earlier post about time management techniques. Your life is remarkably complicated and it would be positively overwhelming to have a single to-do list for everything that you have to do in every aspect of your life.

That’s why before we get to any specific tools you can use for to-do lists, we need to get down some general strategies. In this case, I think it pays to compartmentalize your life, if only for the purposes of to do lists. Work-related projects can be on one list, but your household errands should be on a different list. You can use the same tool for both, but the lists should have some level of organized separation.

Maintain More Than One List

This will depend partly on your personal preferences and the nature of your work, but there’s another level of separation that I feel is worthwhile. For my part, I maintain two main to-do lists. One contains just about everything that I have to do in an itemized and categorized list.

The other is the to-do list for today with items pulled from the larger list. The main reason why I do this is to avoid getting overwhelmed by having a single, very long, very intimidating list. I focus on what needs to be done today and move my attention away from things that I’m going to be doing tomorrow or next week. At the end of each day, I create the to-do list for the next day. Rinse and repeat as needed.

The Constant Notepad on the Desk

By far the easiest way to make a to do list is with the old pen and paper. There is no need to buy special to do list notepads either, since any reasonably small pad of paper (with or without lines, really) can serve this purpose.

Again, how you choose to format your to-do list is completely up to you. There are plenty of to do list templates on the Internet, but you need to devise the system that works best for you, bearing in mind the two tips provided above. You may want to add a column with due dates, for instance, or you may categorize your tasks in a certain way.

I refresh my “main” to do list once a week, since it can get very cluttered with all those items that I’m crossing off!

Virtual Sticky Notes on the Desktop


Sticky Notes

Maybe you want a greener alternative that doesn’t involve needlessly cutting down your neighborhood forest. For all the Windows PC users in the audience, it’s great to see that Windows 7 has Sticky Notes as a native feature. In effect, you get digital versions of the paper-based sticky notes.

These are largely designed as reminders, but you could just as easily use them as to do lists. Unlike their paper equivalents, you can simply delete items from your list as you complete them rather than crossing them off and running out of room. The Sticky Notes system will only work if you work primarily at your computer, making it less useful for errands on the run.

Google Tasks (and Google Calendar)

What if you’re not always at the same computer? What if you’d rather have your to-do list sitting in the cloud? For my part, one of the best tools for the job is Google Tasks. It integrates beautifully with Gmail (as a Labs feature) and Google Calendar.

In line with my previous suggestions, Google Tasks allows you to set deadlines, maintain multiple lists, and even have tasks arranged in a hierarchical fashion for even better compartmentalization. And like so many other things by Google, Tasks is totally free.

TeuxDeux Browser-Based App



Maybe you don’t want to make your own to do list template. Maybe you don’t want the Google overlords to know everything about you. Thankfully, there are lots of great alternatives and one of the best is TeuxDeux.

This is a browser-based to do list app that helps you sort your to do list into the various days of the week. There’s also a “someday bucket” where you can put your back burner projects. Another cool feature is that any task that is not completed will automatically roll over, ensuring that you don’t forget to do tomorrow what you should have done today. There’s even a TeuxDeux iPhone app manage your tasks wherever you go.

Do! Premium for iPhone and iPad

Speaking of iPhone apps, you’ll find that the iPhone App Store is positively loaded with all sorts of productivity applications. You just need to filter your way through the various versions of Angry Birds and apps that mimic the sounds of bodily functions.

One app that you may consider is Do! Premium ($0.99). Developed by NEWSU1, this app has the look of a casual notepad (with sound effects!), but with modern digital conveniences like color and double-tapping. The colored tags are great for visual categorization; they’re also where you would put your due dates.

Astrid Task/Todo List for Android

Naturally, iOS isn’t the only platform with smartphone to do list apps. You’ll find a healthy variety on Google Android too, like Astrid Task/Todo List. This free app can sync with Google Tasks, as well as and It has won several awards from the likes of Engadget, Mashable, and other popular tech sites.

While most other to do lists are geared toward the individual, Astrid allows you to coordinate an event with friends or share action items with workmates after a meeting. That can be very handy in an office environment, since it ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Image credit: Krockodilius / iStockphoto