The mighty to-do list.

Incomplete jobs can pile up into a mountain of tasks. Climb that peak with an effective and actionable to-do list.

Whether at work or at home, to-do lists are a common feature of everyday life. For many people, simple lists for grocery shopping or planning a holiday event emerge naturally. You jot them down on scrap paper or stick them onto your computer monitor with a sticky note. But when it comes to work, task lists are an important business tool for keeping teams on deadline. Itemized task lists with checkboxes can be incredibly helpful — if they’re done right.

To do list templates and apps can be helpful tools, or they can be a morale-sapping punishment. Without the right strategy, your task list might be overwhelming and add unnecessary stress instead of keeping things organized and on track.

A to-do list shapes the final step of a productivity pipeline. Many people get buried under their lists because they don’t have the best to do list time management skills, or they struggle with organizing their workflow. When to-do lists are not designed strategically, they become unactionable and just get longer. Tasks that could have been handled easily start to feel impossible. By taking a few simple steps, you can improve task lists so that they alleviate stress instead of making it worse.

This article offers steps for improving task lists and tips for the best ways to assign yourself work, organize your thoughts, and manage projects. Learn how to make lists that add to productivity and boost your satisfaction in a job well done.

1. Start with intake.

Start with your inbox — email or otherwise. If there’s a heap of undone tasks, clear out the clutter. Cleaning up and getting organized will prepare you to create a better system. This first step might be the hardest one. If you feel overwhelmed, try the “GTD” method popularized by David Allen. “GTD” stands for “getting things done” and it just means you start with the easy stuff. Look at your pile and do everything that takes 10 minutes or less. Then assess everything else that requires your attention.

2. Categorize.

Think about the big picture — not only the big projects and big goals you’re trying to accomplish, but the reasons you have for taking them on in the first place. For a personal to do list, those reasons might fall into categories like work, health, leisure, or relationships. For a business, they might fall into to do list categories according to different aspects of your company’s vision or quarterly goals.

If your tasks are serving only one category and you’re neglecting other important goals, your list is out of balance. If you’re forgetting about the things that really matter to you and your team, you’re more likely to resent the to-do list and experience burnout. To achieve a better balance with personal to-do lists, occupational therapists recommend using categories and choosing one task from each category per day.

3. Chronologize.

To sort out your list and decide what to do first, think about end goals first. If you have a big home renovation project that you’re working on, for example, it’s likely going to involve a few things that need to get done before the whole project is complete. So, just jotting down “Renovate house” on a to-do list is not particularly helpful.

Instead, try breaking your tasks into different phases. Start with the end goal in mind and consider what needs to happen first. Begin at the deadline and work backwards on the steps it will take to get there. Create categories for things that need to be done today, by the end of the week, and by the end of the month.

You can also create categories for things that depend on others before you can do anything and for activities with unknown deadlines. Any time you collaborate with others, it’s especially important to have an organized and chronological task list.

4. Generate the five-item to-do list.

An efficient to-do list never has more than five items on it at a time. That doesn’t mean you’re limited to five items — it just means you need to get smart about scheduling. At the start of the week, have a look at your categories and find the most important tasks for the week. Then break out those items into subtasks that are actionable for that day.

For example, for the home renovation task described earlier, an example task could be “Contact an electrician.” It’s actionable, and it’s also possible to accomplish that day. Five of these smaller tasks are much easier to accomplish in a day than an unending list with various deadlines. Then once you’ve completed a set of five, start the process over.

5. Choose what format works best for you.

To-do lists don’t have to be complicated — you don’t need to go overboard with notifications and due dates. But if those details help you better customize your list, by all means, use all the tools available to you to stay on task. There are plenty of apps out there to get you going with lists for any purpose, any device, and every platform. However, the best to-do list apps and the best productivity apps are the ones you will actually use.

You might also want to make a to do list print out if you prefer a physical object to work with. Once you’ve chosen whether to use an app like the ones mentioned above or a physical list, there are still many list types to choose from, including:

  • Bullet journals
  • Day planners
  • Sticky notes
  • Calendar apps
  • The “Done” list
  • Segmented lists

Look into new kinds of lists and try them out. It doesn’t matter which one you use, as long as it works for you.

To do list, organize plans, projects, checklist, Productivity Works. Woman writing to do list. Close up of female hand writing check note in notebook

6. Have multiple lists.

While creating multiple lists might sound overwhelming, doing so is more efficient — you’re not going to need your work list at the grocery store. Have one list for work, one list for personal errands, and another list for family things, for example. Using a list dedicated to the right context and activity will help you stay focused on what you need to get done during different parts of your day.

7. Always have a primary focus.

With so many things to do, it’s difficult to know where to start, but you can tackle only one thing at a time. Consider what needs the most urgent attention or what is the highest priority, and identify just one task that will move you in the right direction.

It might help to write your primary task on a sticky note and place it prominently in your work area. Then close or put your to-do list away until the primary task is done. This will help you stay focused and avoid distractions. To reduce anxiety about the things that you didn’t get done, congratulate yourself for taking care of the tasks that matter most.

8. Focus on tasks, not goals.

Tasks are not the same as goals. It’s important to think about the larger goals you’re trying to accomplish, and then identify the individual steps that it will take to get there. If the tasks you set for yourself are actually goals, you’re not going to make a lot of progress — until you get more specific about single actions by individuals and the order in which they need to happen.

For example, learning to play the flute is a goal. Some of the tasks involved are acquiring a flute, interviewing teachers, collecting sheet music, and setting up a practice space. Each of the tasks can be completed relatively quickly, but the goal is more long-term. Distinguishing tasks from goals is especially important when you need to make individuals accountable for action items instead of vaguely striving toward a goal for which no one is personally responsible.

9. Maintain your list.

The best thing about keeping a to-do list is the satisfaction of checking things off. And a good list is going to get a lot of action. Immediately returning to your list to cross things off is important not only because it gives you and your team a morale boost — it also reminds you to move on to the next item. So choose a to do list format that allows your or your team to edit and make updates.

The list is a living document. It helps you the most when you consistently update and adapt it to reflect changing priorities and current tasks. If you’re finding that you’re not completing tasks, it might be time to rethink the list and see what’s keeping you from getting things done.

10. Track recurring tasks and assign deadlines.

If you have regular recurring tasks, figure out how long they take to complete and schedule accordingly. Adding the amount of time you expect each item to require can help you manage your time more effectively. Most to-do list apps will sync with your calendar, so it’s pretty easy to make sure you have the necessary time — and that your weekly meetings end up on your list. If you’re on a tight schedule, add ending times or durations to each task. Seeing dates and times will help you determine exactly which tasks must be completed today. Working backward from your due date is a proven way to see if you can fit all of your tasks into your schedule, or if you need to adjust durations or push your deadline out

A pink laptop with a to-do list open on the screen against a red gradient background.

Take the list to the next level with Adobe Acrobat.

If you’re looking for a more advanced strategy for the many tasks that you and your team need to keep track of, Adobe Acrobat is here to help. With collaboration features for multiple people, you can share documents and a collaborative to do list in the cloud. For instance, if you want to make a to-do list for your team members, simply create a PDF and share it. Acrobat Reader is a free PDF reader and tool to easily store and share PDFs with anyone so they can view your lists and add comments.

With Adobe tools and their cloud functionality, you can access to-do lists offline or on any Wi-Fi-connected device, from an iPhone or iPad to a Windows desktop. Plus, there are hundreds of templates available to get you started. Discover more about how you can use PDFs to facilitate your productivity — even if it’s just to streamline holiday planning or your next shopping list.

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