How To Make To-Do Lists Work For You (Step 3/3)


To-do systems help you take charge of your workload. Wouldn’t you like to prevent others from micro-managing you? Learn how these powerful tools can keep you ahead of the game.


~~~ To-Do Systems: 5 simple steps ~~~

To-do lists provide benefits like allowing you to focus clearly on your work with less distractions, clearing your head to make better plans, and much more. Your to-do list is kept separate from your weekly schedule. Let’s see how to marry them both up.

1The next image shows shows a simple way to do this. You can use an A4 diary with two pages per week. Separate the space for each day, so that you have two columns per day.

2On the left-hand side capture all to-dos that come up on that day. You can write the priority next to the tick-off box. If it requires talking or delegating to someone add their initials next to the box.

3On the right-hand side write all your planned to-dos on that day. Do this the evening before. Leave some time for unexpected issues. Just write as many to-dos as you will be able to do in the time frame given in your weekly schedule. This is the link between the weekly plan and the to-do list.

4You may find that you have to split to-dos into multiple subtasks. In that case just plan subtasks on the individual days, and tick them off once completed. Tick the overall task off once all subtasks are completed. Make sure tasks on the right-hand side are concrete and achievable in the time you have given yourself.


5Separate collecting on the left-hand side from planning on the right-hand side. Follow this principle regardless of the system you use. When you are in the “doing” mode, just focus on the right-hand side. Resist urges to replan things. At the end of the day, strike-through all not-completed tasks in the right column and re-plan them. This habit will give you great insights as explained in the measurement step in the “The Planning Cycle.”

More on planning

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done!” is The Bible of organising to-dos! Click for more details about other great to-do systems (available on Amazon).

Outlook - The de-facto email and calendar app in Windows with a great to-do system built into the calendar. My daily tool!


~~~ Alternatives ~~~

To-do systems can be very simple; consider some of the following ideas and see if they’re a better fit for you.

Keep a separate list for all to-dos where you add any new to-do, instead of the left column. Take and add them to a daily planner.

If you have a diary with one page per day, use the top half for collecting and the bottom half for daily plans.

Using Outlook? Add an appointment to your calendar and call it “to-do.” When you plan your day, note in the appointment all to-dos that you want to get done in that time slot or just collect your tasks in the built-in to-do list. Blocking your time helps, so others don’t invite you to meetings at that time.

Some people recommend having one to-do list only. If it works for you, it’s the way to go. I am using more than one. Find out how many task lists you need and what to capture in each of them. I use the app Things! for my private to-dos, Outlook, and a diary as shown on the previous page at my job. Work out over time what works for you.

Great to-do apps

Things! - Very useful app as you can have it on your laptop (mac) and iPhone. Sync via iCloud or WiFi, hence capture to-dos anywhere. I use this app for my private to-dos.

Wunderlist - A free to-do app with very good iCloud sync. Good reviews.

Omnifocus - Quite pricey but popular and a full-on to-do app.


~~~ Do I really need to-do lists? ~~~

Do you like to be micromanaged? Many people believe they don’t need to write down their to-dos. They think they will not forget but they do. And they do so regularly. If you are one of those people, you might already have a reputation for being unreliable. People that think you can’t manage yourself will start managing you.

You need to have to-do lists! If the ones shown are too much effort for your needs, it can be as simple as a sheet of paper or a notepad.

This is the simplest form of a to-do list:
☐ Still have to do this task
☑ Have done this one already

Not-to-do list – Add tasks that you consider not worthwhile doing on a not-to-do list. If a task can remain on that list undone for a few weeks, you have likely found a task that you don’t have to do again. Make sure it is not a long-term important task. You might be surprised how long this list can get!

Do you like to be micromanaged?

If the answer is “yes,” here’s the good news: You don’t need a to-do list.

Here’s the bad news: It’s poison for your career!

Get Organised!

Evernote - Has become very popular. Helps you to collect all your notes, documents and internet captures, organise and find them in seconds.

OneNote - The note organiser from Microsoft with all the interfaces to the other MS-Office products.


Use a system that you like, and you’ll soon find to-do lists have benefits beyond what you originally expected. Keeping engaged will make it more likely for you to stick to it. Understand our Plan-Do-Measure-Improve cycle and apply it on your to-do system and make it better and better.


Learn more about fundamental time management skills

Check out our main article on time management or one of the specialised articles in this mini series.

Info graphic Eisenhower matrix
Info graphic weekly schedules
Info graphic plan your time

If you want to know more about prioritisation and are interested in a very different approach, check out our key article: a step-by-step guide on Prioritisation (click this link).


By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.