A To-Do List That Works for You

An important part of time management is keeping track of everything you have to do.  An effective task list is the cornerstone of staying on top of what you need to do — and what you want to do.  I promised I'd cover the task list in my post about cleaning up your email inbox, so here's the real deal:

Most Task Lists Don't Work

You've probably made up task lists before.  You know, they ended up being long, convoluted, and eventually trashed.  You probably had due dates written down that got crossed off over and over again.  Your digital task list (Outlook or some other solution) probably had tasks in the red trying to guilt you into doing them.  And, well, they never got done.

The traditional “to-do list” just doesn't work.

Your Horizon

I had the same problems until I discovered an effective system for reigning in my task list and getting it to work for me.  I'll tell you more about the exact system further down.  First, lets look at your horizon.

Your “horizon” is the imaginary what you'd like to get done soon and what you can wait to do. For most people “over the horizon” is more than 10 days out. The next 10 days are reserved for those things you need to get done now.

This is an important concept, so think about it for a minute.  What do you have on your task list (or bouncing around in your head)?

Write It Down

Take a few minutes and write it down (or pull out that task list).  Now take everything that you want to do, but is not “urgent” and transfer it to a sheet of paper or document labeled “low priority.”  What's left are your medium to high priority to-do's — things you'd like to see accomplished in the next 10 days or less.

The System

The entire system is based upon this picture of your current tasks and those that are “over the horizon.”  You take care of urgent tasks and those which are important to you right now, while regularly reviewing tasks that you've tossed over your horizon.

I'll show you some screenshots and explain how this works on a day-to-day basis.

Here you see my to-do list for today in Toodledo, which is an awesome webapp to keep track of your task list.  You can customize it to work how I'm going to explain, which is great:


You see two priority categories: High and and Medium.  And you see “Start Date”  You can actually see “Due Date” on the web interface, but I usually use my iPad and it's filtered in the app (more on this later).

When Does it Start?  How Important?

This system is built on Priority and Start Date.  A task is hidden until its start date arrives, period.  So if I have a project I'm planning to start next week (I do!), it won't show up until the date I've defined.

As you can see, I have things filtered by start date.  Those things that start today are of the most importance.  Things that have already started are of lesser importance, so they're lower on my list.  If I want something to have more priority, I change the start date to today.

Those tasks that are “High Priority” are those I must finish before I go to bed tonight.  “Medium Priority” are those I would like to get to today, but aren't mission-critical.

“Low Priority” tasks are those that are over the horizon — you're not looking at them because you don't intend to get to them in the next few days.  I review my low priority tasks every Monday morning to see if any need to be moved up, discarded, or shuffled off to a future Monday.

You can see those coming up for next Monday morning in this screenshot below.  They're normally hidden and I don't even give them any thought.  I pulled them up via sorting in Outlook for this screenshot:


What About Due Dates?

If I have something that MUST be done, putting it in High Priority usually means it gets done.  But if I need to, I will put “DUE 1/19” in front of the task on my list.

Why don't I use due dates?  Due dates are generally counter-productive.  Like I said at the beginning, you usually just end up with a bunch of due dates that have passed and a task list that gets overwhelming. 

Start dates help you to manage both the urgent things that you must get done and keep track of the other things you want to get done.     

Ongoing Projects

I keep my task list actionable, with one next action as my to-do item.  But I often have big projects that I'm working on.  You can see those in this view of my task list (this one from Outlook, which Toodledo syncs to)…. notice the curly brackets {} in several tasks:

Example: {Editorial Calendar} is an ongoing project, so I put that at the end to let me know that's part of that larger project.  I will often have the next several steps of the task in the notes of that to-do item.

A Basic Overview

I love Toodledo and this system because I'm able to handle things.  I generally keep my “High Priority” at 5 items (I never use Toodledo's “Top” category since there is no Outlook equivalent and 3 priorities is enough for me).

I keep “Medium Priority” at 20 items or less… if it's getting to be more than that it's time to move some things in “Low Priority” for the future.

Here's a picture of my iPad app – I also keep Toodledo on my iPhone.  It's great.

I know this is just a quick, basic overview.  My system is built from Michael Linenberger's Master Your Now system.  If you'd like more details, you can get an overview (including how to configure Outlook and Toodledo) in this free quick start guide.  I also highly recommend his full guide Master Your Workday Now!, or if you're an Outlook user, Total Workday Control.

Is your To-Do list working for you?


I'm a wife and mother who loves working online. This is my little home on the web. I run Milk and Mud to share what I'm discovering as I run my own business and explore personal development.

Day Nineteen - January 19, 2012

[…] A To-Do List That Works for You as part of the 7 Days of Blogging […]

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