Figure out your to do list style

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a to do list that works for me and I can stick with and I’m sure that many others can relate to the intimidating, overwhelming, or stressful process it is to start routinely creating and using a to do list. What I found was that I was focusing a lot on the format (how tasks are laid out, how to move them around, what was most visually appealing, etc.) and not much at all on the style (how detailed the tasks should be, how long or short each task was, how dynamic my list should be, etc.)

Before investing too much time and money, a helpful place to start is thinking about the style of list that will work best for you. 

To do lists can be a useful tool to manage what you want to get done. It can also provide a sense of accomplishment and a way to track tasks and goals. Finding the type of list that works best for you can make it easier to get things done by having it work with you instead of against you. 

Using a list that doesn’t fit your life can make it feel that you are planning your day around your list instead of the other way around. A to do list should ease your mental burden not add to it.

Below are a number of ways to organize your list. As you read through, one style may jump out to you or it may be that none of these will feel quite right. Either way, let this inspire you on your journey to find a style that works for you.

What I have found works best for me is to not try and constrain myself to having just one style of to do list. Depending on my mental state, current workload, or even how much sleep I get I may choose a different style that will work for me at that particular time. Next time I make a list it may be the same style or I may decide my needs have changed.

Notebook with the words To Do written across the top, a black sharpie marker is on top of the notebook, and a green coffee cup and plant are next to the notebook

Be as specific as possible

Having each task include details such as what time or for how long can help make it easy to get them done. This allows you to have all the information and there is a clearly defined goal. For this style of list the goal is to have everything needed for each task in one place. You can add as much detail as you want.

If you know you will need to contact someone, add their number or email to the task. If there is an event you want to go to write the time and place to help visually remind you. 


Call dentist office at 9 when they open to schedule appointment, number 555-5555.

Go for 3 mile run at lunch – Take the Elm Street route.

Read 15 pages in Hitchhiker’s Guide before bed.

Meet Jane at Barnes and Noble on Central Ave at 7:30.

Be as general as possible

Specific may not work for you or the tasks you want to get done. Having broad tasks allows you to not be distracted or weighed down by detail, but still help steer you in the direction of what needs to get done.

List more general items without much detail so there is not the added pressure of needing to complete a specific task. This can make it easier to check things off your list and motivate you to do more.

Perhaps your schedule makes it hard to know how much time you will have available. Maybe too much detail can feel restrictive and can elicit feelings of guilt for not getting the exact tasks on your list completed. Give yourself more general tasks that are easier to fit into your day.


Sweep floors

Put clothes away.

Clean one room.

List the steps

For tasks that are bigger, breaking them down into smaller parts allows you to work towards the overall goal and cross off items along the way. Larger tasks may stay on your to do list for longer even though you are working towards completing them. Having the same item stay on the list day after day can make it feel that you are not making progress.

It can be more manageable to write down all the small steps that need to be done to get you to your larger goal. This allows you to check off those smaller steps as you get them done. How detailed you make each step is up to you and the task at hand. More complex tasks may necessitate more steps and that’s perfectly fine, focus on making it manageable not how many individual steps you include.


Write intro to document

Step 1: Research documents similar to what I am working on to get ideas for intro

Step 2: Write down main points I want to touch on in the intro

Step 3: Write first draft of intro (don’t worry about length or grammar)

Step 4: Edit/revise intro to make it more concise


Give yourself options

Having a list of specific items you need to get done may not work for you. Each day our moods and energy levels change and having a to do list that takes that into account can help us stay productive.

Giving yourself options can allow you to get things done without making you feel trapped with a list of items you do not have the motivation to do. 

For this type of list, think of the broad categories you want to include(housework, exercising, hobby, etc.) and list a few items that fit into each category.

This can also help if having broad tasks, such as work out or do yardwork, makes it hard for you to figure out what to do. This helps by giving you some structure but also some wiggle room.


Practice Spanish or practice guitar.

Go for a 20 minute walk or do a 20 minute YouTube workout video.

Clean the fridge or clean the pantry.

Read before bed or write before bed.

Focus on one thing at a time

If a long list of multiple items makes it hard to figure out where to start, consider finding a way to only see one task at a time. Focusing on one item can help you not get distracted by everything you want to get done.

Try either put sticky notes or notecards on top of each other and write each task on a separate piece of paper and create a stack.

This way there is only one visual cue at a time. This gives you the ability to change out which task you are focusing on while still only having one individual task to work on at any given time.

Try doing it backwards

Maybe you’re stuck trying to figure out where to start and even what to put on your list. You may have tried different approaches and tried different styles and nothing has clicked. For some a to do list may not be necessary or may lead to stress, give yourself the freedom to either not make lists or take a break before it becomes a burden.

Try starting with a blank page at the beginning of the day and write down things as you do them.

This is a chance to figure out what items might make sense to put on a list and what doesn’t need to be added. If you are already in the habit of emptying the dishwasher and making the bed every morning, maybe those don’t need to be on your list. But, if you’ve just started getting into meal prepping and want to consistently do more drawing, maybe those are things you want to make sure you keep up with and they should be added to your list.


Perhaps it’s easier for you to write down everything you can think of that you want to get done and it’s harder for you to write a shorter list that you could get done in a day.

Get everything out of your head and onto paper and then work on figuring out what should be prioritized. It can help to think of things as High, Medium, and Low priority or Immediate, Short-Term, and Long-Term goals.

Think about what naming convention resonates with you.

Is there an appointment you need to get scheduled in the next two weeks? Put that as number one on your list. Want to offer some bookshelves for free online? Maybe that makes sense as medium priority, something you want to get done sooner rather than later, but doesn’t need to be done right now. Want to go through your junk drawer and clean it out? That could be low priority and something that gets done when you have the time and motivation.


Schedule dog’s vet appointment – High priority, needs new heartworm meds.

List bookshelves on Craigslist – Medium priority, want to get them out of the bedroom so the room can be painted.

Get snow tires – Medium priority, need to get done within the next month.

Go through junk drawer in kitchen – Low priority, get to this when feeling inspired or don’t want to do other things on list.

Let fate decide

Maybe your style is more chaotic neutral and you would rather leave your tasks up to the whim of the list gods.

For times when making even the simplest decision is difficult, write your tasks down and then put then in a bowl, hat, or other container.

Reach in and take one out to see what your current task should be or take them all out to create the order of your to-do list.

Final thoughts

There is no right or wrong way to create a to do list, it should be personal to you. None of the styles above (or any other styles you may come across) need to be used on their own. These can be a starting place to build a list that helps you stay productive, stick to your goals, and reduce your mental burden. Spending some time finding the right style for you will allow creating your list and doing the tasks to unburden your mind.

Don’t let the list become a source of stress. If having a list makes you focus too much on getting everything done or makes you feel like a failure for not finishing everything, it may be time to step back and look deeper. Take some time to work through your thoughts and feelings, write them down. Don’t hesitate to reach out and talk to someone to help you work out what is going on and seeing what is healthy and helpful for you at this moment in time.

1 thought on “Figure out your to do list style”

  1. This is an excellent post. I’m a bit of a to-do list fanatic and have explored many ways of doing them, switching between different types because of the very issues (guilt, too over-whelming, needing prioritization, etc.) that you describe so well here. While I haven’t yet settled on a particular approach, maybe varying the approach is fine without ever settling on a “right” way, because our situations change – and we change – over time. I particularly like your approach of not saying “here’s the way to do it,” but acknowledging how different we all are and the power of making our own choices. Your post has expanded the way I think about my lists and so expanded the scope of my choices. Thank you!


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