How to Make a To-Do List

 I love to-do lists.  I live by them.  I am constantly writing them and rewriting them, and I’ve  experimented with both paper and electronic apps.  Sometimes I use them in combination even.  What I have discovered through, literally, years of to-do list making is that some lists are more effective than others.  Here’s a quick review of what I have tried, what I am currently using, and what has worked best for me.


First, there is the standard straight out of your brain onto paper list.  This list is just a long string of items.  I number this list, which after a while frankly gets a bit overwhelming.  Knowing that I have 32 items on my to-do list is not motivating.  In fact, the likelihood that I will even look at that list diminishes with each additional task I write down.  The advantage of that list, however, is that once you have crossed a whole lot of things off, you feel immensely productive.  Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get to that visual, and along the way you add more items.  Adding more items diminishes the feel-good vibe of crossing items off.

A variation on the paper list, is the index card list.  Here you put each to-do list item on an index card.  Then you throw away the index card when you have completed that task.  To save a few trees, I write my to-do’s on post-it notes and then I just peel them off the index card when I’ve completed them and reuse the index card itself.  The advantage of the index card list is that it let’s you categorize and recategorize your list of to-dos as needed.  I might paper-clip a bunch together that are part of my personal to-do list, versus my work list, or separate them out by timeline – when they need to get done.  Also, since each item gets it’s own post-it note, this gives me space to make notes about my progress on the task along the way.  If I need to call someone, I can write down the last time I tried to call them but did not reach them for example.  If you want to get really fancy, you can create a whole organization system for your index cards, or you can just go simple, like I do, and carry them around with you separated into paper-clipped stacks.

The latest craze in physical to-do lists is the bullet journal.  I started one back in February, because some of the academic writers who I coach were using it and were swearing it was the best thing since sliced bread.  There is a lot that you can do with a bullet journal, but I’m going to focus on the to-do list aspect.  I think a lot that goes into how productive you will be depends on how you categorize your to-do list.  The bullet journal methodology gives you the following basic setup:  (1) a monthly task list; (2) a daily task list; and (3) a future log.  The monthly task list is just a long list of tasks that you need/want to complete before the end of the month.  Think about that for a moment. Usually, our to-do lists are not time-limited.  We just make a giant to-do list of everything under the sun that we need to do, but we don’t actually commit to doing anything on that list.  The monthly to-do-list sort of solves that problem. It introduces a bit of time pressure by calling itself the July to-do list, for example. The monthly to-do list works in tandem with the future log, which is where you put your future to-dos.  Now, this forces you to think, What do I need to do this month and what do I need to do/can wait until later?   Brilliant.  All those future to-dos, that you can’t even do right now, but which will loom large for you in the future, can be removed from your mental hard drive and stored in your bullet journal.

Although this is not included in the bullet journal bible, I created an additional functionality in my bullet journal by setting up weekly plans. I sketch out my week, put in my appointments and meetings, and, using my monthly tasks, or just things that have appeared out of nowhere, decide what my MITs will be for the week.


Then there is the electronic to-do list.  I have used a variety of apps such as Todoist, Remember the Milk, Kaban Flow, and the reminders app on my iPhone. The problem with electronic to-do lists I have found is that I do not access them.  For the ones that pop up reminders on my phone, I tend to clear those out because they usually pop up at a time that is super inconvenient for doing the task – like when I am commuting or out and about.

Google Keep can be used as the electronic version of an index card to-do system.  I will call it a system instead of a list, because you don’t actually write a list out.  You put one task on each note in Google Keep and then you pin those notes so that you can see them.  You can also categorize them electronically with labels  just as you would categorize your paper index cards. organizes your to-dos by today, tomorrow, upcoming and someday.  You can also create lists of tasks by category – i.e., work, kids, personal.  You can only view a timeline of your tasks within a specific category that you have set up.  There doesn’t seem to be a way to see all of your tasks in different categories in a timeline so that you could produce a master task list. doesn’t seem to do much unless you pay for the premium option, of which there are three with different prices but no clear explanation as to the difference.

I liked Remember the Milk a lot better.  It has an interface that allows you to see all of your tasks, regardless of category, at once.  You can also see all the tasks that you have set to be due today, tomorrow or for up to a week.  You can also see tasks by category.  What you can’t see is category and timeline at the same time.

Wunderlist looks a lot like Remember the Milk, only without the cow.  It lets you see your tasks in a timeline or by category that you define.   It also adds another level of categorization by not only allowing you to make different lists for tasks (i.e., personal, work) but also to create folders where you put groups of list.  For example, I have one folder that is personal.  In that folder I have separate lists for all of my family members.  If you manage human beings in any way (and yes that includes human being children), you could have one folder for each of them where you track what you have asked them to do.  Or you could break down your lists by category of work. Everyone has some sort of categories of work that they do, so you can define what those are for you. You could even add a list which is self-care to make sure that you exercise, get enough sleep and make your lunch for the next day to ensure you eat well.  

Kaban Flow  uses a different interface than the other to-do apps.   Different categories of to-do lists are called Boards.  So you might have a Work Board and a Personal Board at the most basic level. It also includes a nice feature which is a built-in pomodoro timer that you can use to keep track of your time spent on different tasks.  If you stop your pomodoro timer before it is over, it gives you the option to choose the reason that you were interrupted.  A drop down menu pops up with the following:  (1) boss interrupted you; (2) colleague interrupted you (3) email; (4) phone call; or (5) web browsing (i.e., you interrupted yourself).  You can also add additional reasons that aren’t listed to the list, such as “had to clean dust bunnies out from under bed.”  This is then added to a log that you can review that shows how much time you have worked on the task, when you were interrupted mid-pom, and why you were interrupted. A single week of using this could be a really eye-opening experience.  If you really want to get analytical, you can also generate reports that show the total number of poms, interruptions, and your “high-score”  boards where you put in the most poms.  The premium version, which costs $5 per month, adds swimlanes to your view.  Swimlanes are categories of tasks beyond your board categories.  For example, you might have a board that is marked “Work” and then your swimlanes might be the different categories of work that you do. That way, you could see it all on the board at one time.

Habitica is a to-do list/task manager with a decidedly different take on the concept.  To begin with, it has a gaming format.  You set up an avatar and win prizes/gems/points for completing tasks.  I found that off-putting at first, but when I took a look, I found that Habitica had some really nice features that were not available on other to-do list/task managers.  One of these is a good habit/bad habit tracker.  You get points for doing good habits and you lose points for doing bad habits.  So, let’s say that you want to walk every day for 30 minutes and you don’t want to eat the Hershey’s kisses you have on your desk for “other people.”  You could set this up in Habitica and every time you eat a Hershey’s kiss, you would dock yourself a point.  Every time you walked for 30 minutes, you would give yourself a point.  You can see how this speaks to your competitive side while also making you more mindful of your good and bad habits.  You see the Hershey’s kiss and you think – “I’m going to have to record consumption of that for posterity” and you think better of it.  It might not solve all your problems, but it is a good start.

I found Habitica most helpful for tracking good and bad habits and Kaban Flow better for seeing my week, what I had pending and what I had done.

Meistertask has my favorite landing page – a nice picture with the time and a good morning message.  I don’t know why I love that so much, but I do.  You can categorize your to-do lists into projects. You can have basic projects like personal or work, or get even more specific, like a project for each family member, different categories of work that you have at your day job, etc. If you upgrade to the premium version, you can even group projects into project groups.  So, you could put all of your specific work projects into a project group called Work.

Clicking on any project in your list, opens up another window where your tasks for that category are divided between Open (thinking about doing it), In Progress (actually working on it) and Done (yay!!).

When Email is Your To-Do List

A lot of the things that I have to do in one way or another, for better or for worse, come to me through email.  This is really inconvenient because they show up at random times and in random order.  To keep sense of it all, I have used Microsoft Outlook’s category system and created a To-Do folder.  Twice a day, I perform email triage.  Triage is what happens when you walk into the emergency room and the intake team tries to determine whether you will drop dead on the spot or can sit in the waiting room until you grow a beard.  You can see how this might apply to your separate email tasks.

When I do email triage, I do not act on any one particular email unless it will literally take me 3 seconds.  Instead, I read the email and assign it a category in Outlook.  These categories are completely free form and you can add any number of categories that you create based on your needs.  Categories are more like Gmail labels than actual folders.  If you assign a category to an email, it doesn’t go away.  It just has a label attached to it.

Once I assign the category, I then move the email to my To-Do folder.  The fastest way to do this is to set up a quick step in Outlook. Then, with the email highlighted, you just click the quick step labeled To-do, and Poof, the email is filed away for future action. If the people who send you emails write good subject lines, you often don’t even need to open the email to categorize and file it for later action.  In your to-do folder, you can then sort your to-do emails by time or by category.

You could also do this in Gmail by assigning two labels to every email:  the category, and the to-do label.  Then you only need to access your to-do label on the left-hand side of your screen to see your list, but you won’t be able to sort by category.

What works best?  

By now, your head should be spinning over the plethora of options available to you to organize your life.  What works best for you will require a journey of trial and error.  You may find that a combination of paper and electronic works well, or you might pick one or the other for simplicity’s sake.  You may also find that your needs change over time, requiring a change in your to-do organizer of choice.  For me, I have abandoned for now the single to-do list with 52 items on it in no particular order, in favor of a combination of index card system, bullet journal and mesitertask.  

What is your favorite to-do list system?








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