Get the Most Out of Your To Do List

If you have been around me enough, you know that I am a list maker. If a topic or agenda has more than two items, I will start a list. I do this partially because I don’t trust myself to remember things, and partially because of the endorphin buzz I get from crossing off items on a list. Some people are adrenaline junkies, addicted to skydiving or bungee-jumping. Others love the feeling of a nicotine or an alcohol buzz. Me… I get high on lists.

In my Notes section of my iPhone, you could find over 50 lists of various things, such as:

  • To Do This Week
  • Groceries to Buy
  • Books to Read
  • Blog Topic Ideas
  • Places I Want to Travel
  • Favorite Breakfast Spots
  • Vocab Words I Need to Learn
  • Good Quotes
  • My Historical Heroes

Despite my embarrassment, I will admit that Pinterest is one of the only social media tools out there that can suck me in. Making lists simply to make lists. What a fantastic idea!

Aside from notes on my smartphone, I also use a piece of notepad paper to make a classic paper-and-pen style To Do list every night for the next day.

Like many people, having a To Do list each day is a necessary function to being productive at work and also in life outside of work. How will I remember to send that email to Human Resources? I  need to submit the spreadsheet by Wednesday. I can’t forget to pick up my dry cleaning. When will I have time to run to the Post Office? The constant responsibility overload is managed, for many of us, by To Do lists.

This classic paper To Do list is what keeps me sane and productive, but not just any style of To Do list will make you more productive. Daily To Do lists can either be your best friend, like a caddy helping you along your day, or your worst enemy, like the heckler in Happy Gilmore, disturbing your momentum and yelling nonsense into your ear while you’re trying to win.


In this post, I will help you make the most out of your To Do list. Stop scribbling nonsense, and start being productive and organized.

The first step, as I mentioned, is to always write your list out the night before each day. Writing the list the night before helps me:

  • Ensure I do not forget something important when I wake up
  • Save time and energy, limiting how much I have to think at the start of each day
  • Focus on what is important, rather than “spinning my wheels” on less important tasks

Once you have committed to writing your list the night before each day, you need to ensure that your list has a system of prioritization. See, for chronic list makers such as myself, it is often times the simple crossing-off that produces instant gratification. A chronic Lister will pat himself on the back after a day “of accomplishment” such as the one pictured below, even though little was accomplished.

Bad To Do List.jpg

However, just because you crossed off a bunch of items on a list, doesn’t mean you were productive or even accomplished anything. Vanessa Loder, in her article on, says the number one mistake people make with their To Do lists is confusing quantity with quality.

Many people incorrectly associate self-worth with checking things off their To Do list. If I am able to complete a lot of things in one day, it must mean I’ve done a good job and, therefore, I’m a good enough person. Right? We all want validation. Here’s the problem with this – it means that you’re likely to waste your time on low impact, easy to complete tasks just to feel good about what you’ve accomplished. How many of you have spent time on something that was easy and quick, but not very strategic? Was this because you were avoiding the harder, more impactful thing? We waste time on menial chores and tasks just to have a sense of accomplishment. Over time, this makes us much less effective at our job.

In an effort to ensure the most important items are completed each day, I developed a ranking system to get the most out of my To Do list.

The system has two functions:

  1. Highlight the SIX items that MUST be completed in the day
  2. Rank the items from MOST IMPORTANT (1) to LEAST IMPORTANT (6) 


#1, Highlight the SIX items that MUST be completed today: 

Six is the perfect number. Everyone can accomplish six important things per day. In my previous outside sales job, my boss gave me the “rule of six,” which was to set or attend a total of six meetings each day. If I attend two meetings, then I must set four. If I attend six meetings, then my day is full and I do not need to worry about scheduling any new meetings today. You get the picture. Six is a good number because most of us are awake and productive for a solid twelve hours per day within the morning (waking up, getting ready, and commuting) and the night (dinner, relaxation, and preparing for tomorrow). Anyone can accomplish one important thing every two hours.

The six items highlighted on your list are an absolute priority. They are to be considered the only things on your list until they are completed. All other items are secondary and considered a waste of time and energy until the highlighted items are completed.

By highlighting the most important items on your list, your attention is directed to them above all other items. You are forced to stare at your priorities, screaming at you in yellow or orange or pink, until you can cross them off.

(Side tip: I always use a solid black marker to cross off the items I have completed. It looks cleaner. Blacking out the highlighted color completely will help you focus on what is important to accomplish next.)


#2, Rank the items from MOST IMPORTANT (1) to LEAST IMPORTANT (6) 

This is critical in the event that you are unable to complete all six items, or if any items must be completed earlier in the day than the others.

Ranking the items the night before your next day will allow you to auto-pilot your brain and accomplish the absolute necessities without needing to weigh the options. It will also prohibit any other distracting To Do’s that come up in the morning from overriding your productivity. This happens every day. Supposed “emergencies” interject and try to steal your time. But you won’t let that happen with this system. Instead, you will focus only on the highlighted items and number rankings, and thus, you will always accomplish the most important items first and move on to the less important only after these are completed.

This ranking system will help you avoid ending your day with either a lack of accomplishment or, what’s worse, a false sense of accomplishment demonstrated in the To Do list shown above.

Here is an example of my To Do list from today. While some may consider it sacrilege to make a To Do list on the weekend rather than simply enjoying the couch or social events, I feel the opposite. Since I want to make the most out of my free time, I always use a To Do list on Saturdays and Sundays, just like I do during the week. This keeps me from getting to Monday and wishing I had done the things that I wanted or needed to do (such as exercise or pay my bills). It also helps me feel less busy during the workweek.

Good To Do List.jpg


In Summary, the best way to get the most out of your To Do lists: 

  1. Make your To Do list the night before each day
  2. Highlight the six most important items to be completed
  3. Rank the highlighted items from most important (1) to least important (6)
  4. Use a black marker to cross off items as you complete them

By following these four steps you will become more productive immediately.


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