The Best (and Worst) Ways to Organize Your To-Do List

The Best (and Worst) Ways to Organize Your To-Do List

The to-do list can help keep you on track with everything you need to get done in life; or it can be an overwhelming, disorganized mess. There are better ways to organize your to-do list—or, rather, lists, plural. Because the best option is actually to have a few ongoing, fluid to-do lists that cover different areas of your life. Here are the pros and cons of various ways you might be organizing your tasks.

The daily to-do list

A daily to-do list is helpful because it enables you to see exactly what you have to do on a given day, reducing decision paralysis and getting you on track right away in the morning. The downsides to this method are many, however: If something doesn’t get done, you need to remember to add it to the next day’s list. Plus, if you’re only focusing on the things on a one-day list, you might overlook longer-term or future tasks that you need to hop on now.

The long-term to-do list

A list to which you add and from which you remove tasks every day is preferable to a static, daily list by far. As new elements of work come up, you can add them to the list, but keep them ordered by time, so you’re still focusing on the most pressing needs first.

The downside here is that it will feel never-ending—because it is. That’s not great for morale, so if you’re someone who gets a rush of accomplishment from crossing things off and getting whole lists done, daily might work better for you.

The segmented to-do lists

The tasks you have to do at work are different from the ones you have to do at home, the ones you have to do for your kids, the ones you have to do for school, or the ones you have to do for your volunteer gig. Each part of your life should have separate to-do lists. This will stop you from getting overwhelmed or working on anything that isn’t relevant at a given time.

Compartmentalization is key to getting things done, so at least segment these into different notes on your phone or in your notebook.

The ordered to-do list

Here’s where we bring it all together: Your to-do list needs some kind of structure. There are two structures I recommend for prioritizing tasks: The Eisenhower matrix and Kanban. Both of these enable you to figure out what tasks need to be done first based on when they’re due and what needs to be done to complete them.

This is why having an ongoing, not daily, list is so helpful. If you have a big project at work, you can’t visualize all the steps it requires using a daily list. If you’re hosting a dinner party, you won’t do the shopping, the cleaning, and the cooking on one day—and the shopping obviously needs to happen before the cooking, or else you’re in trouble. Your to-do list needs to be fluid and long-term, plus ordered by importance and timing. Daily and weekly lists will leave you in the cold this way.

The best way to store a to-do list

All that said, you still need your to-do list somewhere where you can see and edit it. The notes app in your phone works great, but it’s also easy to ignore. Meanwhile, plenty of research shows that actually writing down your list unburdens your mind, making it easier to tackle whatever you need to do. I recommend writing real-life lists on paper and keeping them where you need them. For work, they go on your desk. For home, they go on the kitchen counter.

When making long-term, fluid lists, you’ll end up rewriting pretty often as you run out of space, but that’s fine. Instead of a daily to-do list, try recopying your list weekly every Friday, eliminating tasks that you’ve stricken out and including any new ones that have popped up. Reorder the list using a prioritization method and toss out the old one, even if it still has a number of tasks on it that the new one also includes.

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