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7 Step Guide to Creating the Ultimate To-Do List

As Long as our feeble brains cannot keep up with the number of things that need to be remembered Todo lists will have a place in any productivity system.  But, how to make a todo list? Moreover, how to make it an effective productivity tool?  This article sets out to address these fundamental questions and provide you, the cherished readers, the ultimate guide to creating an effective to do list.

As Long as our feeble brains cannot keep up with the number of things that need to be remembered Todo lists will have a place in any productivity system.

Introduction

But, that is a story to be told another day!

Task lists come in all shapes and sizes you can have a teeny weeny task list for your grocery list or a humongous task list to deal with the most complicated of projects.  Whatever the case may be there are a few fundamental principles that can help to create and execute those tasks for maximum effectiveness. It is those fundamental principles that I will cover today.  Will that be the end of the journey? In a word, no, for I will later deal with the inevitable follow on topic – how to effectively utilise and execute your completed todo list. But, that is a story to be told another day. Today, let use begin the journey with how to make an effective todo list.

So kick back, grab a beer, or coffee if you’re in the office, and  let’s go through it together.

Todo list Golden Rules

Before I get stuck into the steps needed to create the most effective todo list you have ever created in your life, I would first like to set a couple of ground rules – Golden Rules if you will. For those of you that find the concept of in your face bling offensive, then you may address them as jolly good ideas that one should pay heed to.

Rule #1 : The list should contain actionable tasks.

This is a great piece of advice that originates from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. The items on your list should not be whims, ideas and so. They should be concrete, actionable steps that you can take to bring you closer to your objective. Let’s take an example. Let’s say you wanted to learn Spanish and you wanted to execute some actions to that end. You don’t write “Learn Spanish”, in your list. How can you act on such a statement? Instead you could have something like, “Purchase level 1 Spanish book”, “Find online Spanish course for beginners”, “learn food vocabulary, P1-P5”, and so on.

So, you get the idea. No wishes, just actionable steps.

Rule #2 : The todo list should be as simple as possible

As Einstein would advise, the todo list should be as simple as possible and no simpler. At the most basic level, it can be a simple list of task titles for your own personal use. At the other end of the spectrum, it can apply to a whole team, have dates, priorities, categories, be used for reporting, have dashboards, be used for resource evaluation and a load of other stuff. But, with more features the effort needed to add task information and to maintain the list goes up. Too much effort can mean that the list does not get utilized because of the hassle involved, it is a chore to add new stuff to it, it gets out of date and ultimately becomes the opposite of what was intended – a useful productivity tool. So, determine what information you need for your needs and don’t get too carried away with preening of the todo list.

Rule #3 : Determine what is to be kept in that list and only in that list

The intention here is to have a place for everything and everything in its place. A task list in itself is not a complete productivity solution. Think of it as fulfilling two roles. first , as a second brain – a repository for all the things you need to keep track off and in offloading the stuff onto your list, you unburden your brain for other things, like….thinking! The second role is that it is great tool for enabling the correct tasks to be done. When you know the list contains all the things you could do, it inevitably contains the right things you should be doing. One need only select them! And that, will be the topic of the next article in this series.

Anyways, back to the point, everything in its place. For whatever list you create, you should know what it should be in there, and what not. For example, one list may be all the actions relating to a particular project. It may be your whole life, with all business and family stuff.

Importantly, it should not replicate and other parallel solutions, such as calendar entries or other lists. So, know thy list.

With those basic rules of the road out of the way, let’s now crack on with the business of how to create an effective task list.

Creating an Effective Todo List

To create a modicum of a logical route to an effective list, I will go through a series of steps. Seven to be exact. Interesting plant by the way but I have no idea what it is.

Answers on a postcard, or its modern day equivalent, comments section below. Right, back to those steps I mentioned on how to make a todo list.

Step 1 – Select the medium for the todo list

Right, first things first. Where are you going to keep this fantastic list of yours? From a simple point of view, you have two choices. Either paper or software. Fundamentally that is a personal choice and it is entirely up to you. I tend to go for software for some reasons I will go through shortly but the age old pen and paper is really making a resurgence in the form of bullet journals. Advanced bullet journaling is an article in itself, which I will not cover here. However, you can check out this article over at flippingheck.com for the complete guide.

Anyway, back to my medium of choice, software. The advantages I see over paper are,

I can find things.

This goes beyond merely putting on my glasses. When tasks are put in electronic format the text becomes searchable so anything can be found in seconds. This is a huge advantage over notebooks where one may have to do a serious amount of flicking to get the required information.

I enter tasks once.

Back in the days when I had paper task lists I often found myself having to copy incomplete task lists across to new pages when most if the tasks had been completed. With software you enter the information once and if you really need to move it around the list a simple copy/paste will suffice.

I can share tasks/work easily with others

When all tasks are in electronic format they lend themselves easily to adding responsibilities and sharing out the workload. In the modern era of collaborative efforts this is a must and since electronic lists can be easily shared this is certainly an advantage over recording the tasks on paper and then having to relay them to others.

I can easily generate reports

With the software I use, Abstractspoon Todolist it is easy to search the tasks that I had completed over a certain timeframe. This enables very quick and easy report generation for all completed tasks. Try that with a notebook!

I can collect and collate tasks easily

Software lends itself to collection of tasks from multiple sources by simply importing them. This could be pulling across tasks from emails, manual entry of tasks, importing project plans or copy/paste from other task lists. This enables one system that can handle all the “stuff” you have on your plate. Much preferred instead of having a paper list for some actionable items, email for others, referring to project plans somewhere else etc. The latter involves much more reviewing and maintenance.

I have no idea what I will do before arriving at work

 Believe it or not this is actually a good thing unless you one of those uber-efficient types who wakes at the crack of dawn for a spot of meditation and then formulating the activities for the day. If everything is well organised in a good system it is not necessary to keep stuff in your head. A quick look over my task list on arrival at work quickly determines the tasks to be completed for that day. I use an approach based on GTD for that. This enables the proverbial mind like water, enabling focus to be placed on the task at hand.

I can resume tasks quickly

If you wish to move between tasks quickly you need to be able to pick them up and put them down quickly. In my case I may need several electronic files to perform a given task. To enable quick resumption of the activity I place links to all files related to the topic in my electronic todo list which means they can all be opened in seconds allowing a quick resumption of the task. More detail on linking for productivity.

I can plan my day effortlessly

With software based task management all manner of information can be entered for each task allowing quick and easy selection of tasks to do for that day. That may include giving priorities to tasks, setting start and due dates or even setting reminders or calendar bookings for the tasks.

I can collaborate

With the new raft of online task management tools new ways to collaborate are possible over a personal paper based system. In fact, the former makes the latter look archaic. Some advantages of these tools include,

Team chat – local based communication to supersede email

Task based information storage including linked files, notes and comments from team members

Reports generated at the touch of a button

Access anywhere across multiple platforms including mobile phones and tablets.

All of the normal search and filtering tools one would expect from software solutions.

Up to date notifications when certain changes happen. For example you can be notified when someone in the team completes a task or changes a task.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

I can track progress in completing objectives/projects

Putting intended tasks into project planning or task management tools immediately gives a lot more foresight as to how and when they can be best done. Some task management tools include basic Gantt chart functionality which is a good visual tool to map out when tasks can be done and the relationship between them. As tasks get completed and we progress along our Gantt chart we are afforded some element of visibility as to how the activities are progressing and if they are likely to be completed on time.

Should you opt for software I will also throw in a couple of recommendations for you. If your intention is to only use the list for work related stuff and you work on a PC, the my suggestion would be the freeware program, ToDoList, from Abstractspoon. It is a small, light, but highly effective task manager application. Abstractspoon ToDoList gives a variety of ways to view your task list from an outline view, to Gantt chart, to Kanban board to Calendar view. Moreover, you can share your work task list file with other colleagues so it is excellent for local team collaboration. Here is the ToDoList download link for this free software.

How to make a Todo List: Abstractspoon ToDoList

 Abstractspoon ToDoList user interface

Abstractspoon ToDoList is my choice of program for professional task management. You can read my full review of Abstractspoon ToDoList.

If however, you want to take your lists with you wherever you go then my suggestion would be Todoist. Todoist supports every imaginable platform. Naturally that includes the usual suspects – Windows, Android, iOS, Mac OS etc. There are quite a few reasons why I like Todoist some of which you can find in the Todoist review and Todoist vs. Wunderlist articles.

How to make a Todo List: Todoist

Todoist User Interface

Here is the iTunes link for Todoist. They have a free version that can be used to trial the software.

Step 2 – Determine the Task List Format

Now that you have selected the medium for the task list it is time to determine the format for it. For anything more complicated that a shopping list you will probably want to structure your list in some way.  Otherwise, when you  load it up with tasks it will become a bottomless pit of never to be done wishes.  There are various ways to go about structuring it and in this article I will provide a few different examples as well as scenarios when each can be applied.  But, in the end, whatever suits your particular situation is always the best choice.

The way I will present them is in the traditional outline or nested view.  This means you have a main task which is composed of several subtasks.  This is a nice way to break down a large main task into small, digestible subtasks which are easier to deal with.  To give an example, let’s say I had a large task such as moving house. I recently had to do this and it is never a pleasant experience.  Anyway, this large(and terrible task) can be broken down into a number of smaller tasks such as,

MOVE HOUSE

Relocate house bills

Pack stuff

Organize moving company

Clean new apartment

Etc.

In this example I have structured my to do list based on a project, in this case moving house.  This can be expanded to include additional projects so you end up with a list like the first example, Project Structured List.

Project Structure, suitable for professional use for juggling different activities.

Project A

Subtask 1

Subtask 2

Project B

Subtask 1

Subtask 2

Goal based, currently my favourite list for personal needs.  In this case you can list a few long term or life goals and new tasks need to slot into one of them.  So, by completing the tasks under each goal, you are slowly completing it step by step.  This is an especially nice technique when combined with some sort of reporting to indicate how many tasks you are completing by project/goal.

Goal 1

Subtask 1

Subtask 2

Goal 2

Subtask 1

Subtask 2

Timeframe based, best for having a focused view of the tasks you need to be completing in a certain timeframe, ranging from the important tasks this week to important goals to be completed this year.

This week

Task 1 for this week

Task 2 for this week

This month

Task 1 for this month

Task 2 for this month

This year

Goal for the year

“Getting Things Done”, approach. In David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done(GTD), he advocates several lists,

  • Delegate list
    • Should you be lucky enough to have an army of minions working for you they will surely be on this list.
  • Defer list
    • Can’t do right now, but I plan to do it at a certain date.
  • Someday list
    • I will get around to it but don’t know when.
  • Reference list
    • I have absolutely no intention of lifting a finger to do anything but who knows, maybe this stuff may be useful to me some day.
  • Project lists
    • A project in this case is a task requiring two or more tasks.

    How to make a Todo List: GTD Workflow

    The GTD Work flow for entering new tasks

    Step 3 – Use the Force “Someday list’

    An important action of creating a task list it to be able to distinguish the tasks that are of importance and those that not so critical right now, or perhaps ever.  In order to prevent clutter in your list from creating a perpetual distraction we have the concept of the “Someday list”.  This is a great idea from GTD, whereby all the items that are not of interest right now can be filed in this list.  The danger is of course that having entered this black hole they will never again see the light of day.  Therefore, it is important when using such a Someday list to also include a regular review of the list into your system.

    Step 4 – Define How Tasks Will be Selected for Execution

    It has been said that efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things. Task lists are a great tool to enable the choice of the right tasks. If you have all the possible things you could do in your task list then inevitably it will contain the things you should be doing to be most effective. Making the right choices to maximum effectiveness will be covered in the next article in this series so stay tuned for that or alternatively sign up for the newsletter to get it directly in your inbox. While we will not cover the subject here in detail what we do need to know is on what basis the right tasks to be done now will be selected. To make that selection you need task information. This information is not only the task title but additional task details to enable you to make the right choice. Examples of this include

  • Task priority
  • Task category
  • Due dates

Step 5 – Assign Responsibilities

If the task list is exclusively for yourself then go straight to step 6, do not pass go and so not collect $200. If, on the other hand, you have a small army of minions to do your bidding, then this small section will apply. Simply put, for each task assign a person responsible. This of course is common sense but it has particular relevance in the context of using a software based list, having a shared list or even a distributed team spanning the globe. Most electronic based task management apps enable some form of filtering, including by name. This means that any member of your team can quickly and easily filter all of the tasks on the list to find those that they are responsible for. Furthermore, assigning names to tasks also enable those people to be notified that a new task has been allocated to them. This also saves time by not having to separately inform them of new tasks by email etc.

 Step 6 – Link the Task Materials to the Task

This is both a lifesaver and a great productivity tip and so keep it in mind when making and maintaining your todo list.

Simply put, the idea is to create a file link between the task and any material associated with it. That material may take the form of MS Word files, PowerPoint presentations, analysis files and so on. Then when you return to work on that task, simply click on the links to have all the information that you need to execute the task. So, why is it a lifesaver you may ask? Well, my own personal experience of it has been the following. In some cases I have done work that I needed to come back to after weeks or months. It can also be the case that the files associated with that task can be distributed or can have multiple versions. Because I have the task listed in my todo list and all the material has been linked it is simply no problem to pick up that task after months of inactivity. I simply do a quick search on my todo list, find the task and click the links to get back all the historic associated material. I need not have a brilliant memory to remember what i did or where i placed the files. This is just as well as my memory is terrible.

And, why is it helpful productivity tip? Similar reasoning. Going from one task to another generally results in some lost time in having to mentally switch gears and the collate the information needed for the task. With linked material, open the task and by clicking on the linked files you have everything you need for the next task within seconds. Here is a quick introduction of how to do it in ToDoList.

Linking files with ToDoList

Step 7 – Always Have your Todo List Available

If the todo list is out of sight, it is out of mind and within a short time it will be out of use. Usage of your task list for recording new tasks and as a tool for task selection and execution must become habitual or else you are reacting to events as they come up or your particular whims for the day. Three tips to this end.

  • If you are using a software based task list at work then have it open on a second monitor. This is to enable quick entry of anything that comes up during the course of the day. However, we need to be careful here not to let it become a distraction by having a wall of tasks continuously confronting your during the course of the day. Therefore what I would suggest is after selecting your tasks for the day to hide all others. This is usually possible with task management apps, by flagging or selecting tasks.
  • If you are using a multi-platform tasks management app such as Todoist, then have it available on all of your platforms – your phone, tablet, PC and so on. So, no matter where you are you can easily drop new things into it.
  • If you are using a notebook to list your tasks, keep it on your table. Create a small subset of tasks for that day, perhaps three or four and keep those visible.

 

How to make a Todo List Summary

Congratulations for making it through this beast of an article on how to create an effective task list. If you just skipped to this summary then go back to the start and try again. Alternatively, save this article on Pocket and you can listen to it on the way home from work.

I hope you found it useful and will go away with at least a few tips on creating an effective todo list to help you get stuff done. If so, be sure to stay tuned for the next installment on dealing with task selection. Simply sign up to the newsletter to get that sent directly to your inbox. One last request from my side before I sign off for today – if you found this article helpful, make sure to share on your choice of social network so that others may benefit!

Cheers!

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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2 Responses

  1. lyceum1776 says:

    Brendan: Now I have to write down on my to-do list to go through your post, in order to create the ultimate list for getting things done! 😉 Have you heard about Steph Crowder’s 15 minutes weekly planner system?

    All the Best,

    Martin

    • Brendan Toner says:

      Hi Martin,

      yeah, I know that article is a bit on the long side. But, what can one expect for an “ultimate”, guide! For big articles, best to just add the link to Pocket and listen to it on the way to work.
      For the 15 minute planner system, thanks for the tip. I signed up on her web site and I will have a look,

      cheers,

      Brendan

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