How to create better to-do lists

Thaisa Fernandes⚡
Apr 15 · 14 min read

In previous years, I realized the importance of creating better to-do lists. I was often frustrated that I didn’t create effective to-do lists, or I complained that I needed more hours in the day to complete everything I wanted to accomplish.

After a while, I realized that I didn’t know how to create an effective to-do list. I was basically dumping everything I had in my mind onto the list and adding everything I wanted to accomplish no matter when. I even had things that I didn’t know if I really wanted to accomplish on my lists, which sounds crazy to me now.

I know, we all want to accomplish a lot, including obligations that most of the time we can’t avoid and the “nice to have” or “when I have time” tasks. There are also goals, and it’s often really hard to set possible and achievable deadlines for them too.

Knowing how to create an effective to-do list can help you complete your entire list without much pain and suffering or long nights of work. I’m going to share tips that help me when I’m creating to-do lists. Here we go.

1 — Brain Dump everything you have in your head

I love technology, and it’s definitely a huge part of my life — personal and professional, but for to-do lists, I always like to start with paper. Some studies and authors say that writing things down on paper helps you remember them and makes you accountable.

I really encourage you to do this first stage on paper and then transfer it to your favorite app, which is what I usually do. My process starts with a brain dump.

For those who don’t know what a brain dump is, it’s when you take the time to transfer everything you have stored in your brain about a particular subject. That’s it! It’s basically a way to dump all your knowledge about that particular subject onto paper or to a notebook app.

The goal is to liberate space your brain is consuming because you always need to remember a lot. So you’re transferring all this information and knowledge to paper and freeing up brain space.

When I do a brain dump, I usually feel like I have removed a heavyweight from my head. You’ll be free to concentrate on things that you can actually do something about at that particular moment.

Tip: Don’t worry about whether you’re making sense. Just fill your notebook with everything you have stored in your brain about that specific topic. No filter or editing is needed during this process. You can also use a timer for this!

2 — Simplicity is your best friend now

Now you have a long list of things. For some of them, I’m sure you have a lot of details and for others, you’re not specific enough. What you should be doing right now is to start to make sense of what’s on the list. You don’t need to worry about the prioritization and categorization.

Right now you just need to focus on making sense and keep it simple. Start giving the task the right amount of detail it needs, not too short, or not too long. Let’s be specific and brief. You can do it!

While you’re adding detail to the tasks you should consider this: will my future self be able to understand that? It shouldn’t be too long or too short, and even if six months pass, you should be able to understand what this task is about.

Lists that are too long aren’t very good. It’ll be difficult to understand what you should be doing if you scan your to-do list quickly, and it can also be discouraging to tackle since it’s too long to read and understand it.

Make sure your tasks are actions that can be finished in one day and no more than that. In the next phase, you’ll learn how to break it down to make sure it’s achievable.

Tip: “Call Navneet” doesn’t mean anything if you don’t specify why you need to call her. Instead of a generic task like that, you can type: “Call Navneet to talk about Product Owner certification she’s got.” Make sure you also include her phone number to make it easier when it’s finally time to call your friend. Then you don’t need to look for her number. It’s short, simple and gives you the right amount of details needed to take action.

3 — Break it down

I’m sure you have some tasks and goals that are too broad. If your list is too vague, you might not have adequate time to complete tasks, and you can easily get discouraged from tackling tasks, not even knowing how to start.

To set realistic deadlines, you need to start thinking about things you want to accomplish in a day. Always keep in mind daily goals and tasks that are must be completed on that particular day.

A broad task can be so intimidating that you might be afraid to even start to work on it if you’re not able to see the end result or if the task is too complex to be accomplished in one day.

Start to break the task into smaller tasks that will be easier to manage and complete. Another thing to keep in mind is that the smaller task will help you to ensure you’ll complete the overall goal, and it can encourage you to ensure that the tasks will be initiated and completed within the timeframe you chose.

When you’re breaking it down, think about the specific steps you’ll need to follow to accomplish that goal. Start with the first thing you absolutely will need to do to achieve that goal.

Tip: Instead of having a broader task like “create a new portfolio.” You can break this task into smaller ones, for example, you can start with the task of “gathering portfolio references to study for ideas about your new website.” This task will definitely be inspiring and give you lots of great ideas.

4 — Prioritize

The prioritization is definitely the most difficult and important step. I always start by looking at my entire to-do list with all the tasks I wish to accomplish that day. Looking at my list, I’ll consider what is the most important task I need to accomplish that day.

I usually pick the 1–2 items I absolutely need to accomplish that day. Sometimes we think we can accomplish more than that, but in this stage try to prioritize your 1–2 most urgent things.

This process will help you to prepare so that if something happens, you’ll be able to guarantee that the two must-do things will get done and in the following day or week, you’ll be able to reschedule the other ones if needed.

I try to tackle similar tasks in the same time period as much as possible. For example, if I have two similar tasks to accomplish that day (e.g., write a new blog post and create my email marketing), I’ll definitely try to work on them both one after the other since I will be in that frame of mind already.

Tip: If you want to start your day slowly, one strategy is to tackle the easier task first. That way you’ll accomplish it faster and as soon you complete it, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that can encourage to complete the most important task of the day next.

5 — Could-do list

The brain dump and prioritization steps will help you define your could-do list, because it’ll force you to consider what are the two most important things you’ll need to accomplish from that long list of things you need to do.

The whole idea of the could-do list is really to make clearer goals and fill the gaps in case you have free time or need to reschedule a task because it’s part of the could-do list, and not your to-do list.

Creating these lists will help you remember everything you want to complete, and it also helps to clear out the trash. Sometimes the task is so small and easy, but we’re always thinking about it and yet not taking action.

I love to have these could-do lists, and I’m always tackling something from there when I have free time, or when my schedule or priorities change. It can also be really handy when you’re bored. For example, you’re waiting for a friend to call, why not organize that stack of paper while you wait for her to call?

Tip: Ensure this list is really a could-do list and you tackle it only if you have time. The goal is not to add more items to your busy routine, but rather to make sure you have adequate time to work without a burnout.

6 — Make sure to have breaks

Yeah, you read it right. It’s your responsibility to make sure you’re taking time to rest. Some research shows the importance of taking breaks from complex and difficult tasks, or even naps, to help you boost your energy, rest your brain, and increase your creativity.

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique, which is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique is basically a way to ensure you’re 100% focused on a task during a certain amount of time. It’s usually 25 minutes with a 5-minute break each time.

As I mentioned in this post, your brain naturally functions in spurts of high energy, which is followed by spurts of low energy. To help your body and brain maximize this energy, you really should consider giving yourself a break from time to time.

Tip: A great way to rest your mind is to walk. You can start to take long walks to help your brain rest, and it’ll also help increase your creativity. There are a lot of people who have used this technique, including Beethoven. They’re able to solve problems and see a different point of view after these walks.

7 — Time it

Since you’ve already prioritized your top 1–2 most important tasks in your list and also broken your tasks into small chunks of work, now it’s time to time them all. In this exercise, it’s really important to think about the tasks and ballpark the amount of time you think you’ll need for each.

You’ll check your to-do list and add an estimated time to each task. This exercise will help you to confirm whether it’s really possible to complete all the tasks in one day of work, or if you’ll need to break these tasks in smaller chunks to schedule in one work day.

Make sure you’re thinking about a real-case scenario. For example, sometimes things go wrong, and we need to spend more time than expected to complete a task. Are you accounting for these scenarios?

I know, we usually work 8 hours a day, but it’s definitely unrealistic to think we’ll be productive 8 hours every day since we always have a lot of stuff going on. We’re still human beings who need time to socialize with our peers and friends. We still need to eat and take breaks from time to time, so account for those too.

Some people like to schedule each and every task, so I think it depends on your style. I usually identify the two tasks I absolutely need to get done that day, and also what I’m planning to accomplish in the morning and in the afternoon, but you can also set a certain time for each task if you feel like it.

Tip: With time you’ll get better at estimating your tasks. Every time you do this exercise you’ll bring experience from the previous estimate and will be improving your skills. If a task is something new to your to-do list, and you don’t know how to estimate it, another tip is to estimate the task timing based on a similar task you executed before.

8 — Schedule it

I have two different styles for to-do lists related to my full-time work. I plan daily since my days are extremely dynamic and change constantly. This is different from my personal projects, which I plan on a weekly basis and change only in the event I need to make changes.

Sitting down to create your to-do list can feel scary, but it can actually become something fun. I love to plan for the following day at the end of the workday, and every Sunday night I think about my week and my personal projects and things I want to accomplish outside my work.

It’s a nice way to finish your day (or week if you plan it weekly). It can help with anxiety since you’ve prepared and planned what you’re going to do the following day. It can also help you to prepare mentally when you’re going to have a busy day with an important milestone or complex deliverable.

You can pick the same time every day and create a routine to plan your beautiful to-do list. Include things you like, for example, I love to have my favorite cup of tea and Spotify playlist to help me focus and get into this to-do and could-do list mindset.

Tip: Don’t pressure yourself to get it right and accomplish everything you’ve planned for every day. Sometimes we have shifts and your to-do list needs to be flexible enough to accommodate changes since we are not machines.

9 — Be flexible

This is the key. Your to-do list needs to be flexible enough to accommodate changes and shifts, and also include time to rest. By default, you can leave 15 minutes between tasks to ensure your plan will work well in case a meeting goes over schedule or you need more time than expected to complete that important task.

If something happens, for example, you have a huge blocker that is preventing you from completing or even initiating a task, ensure you stop. Take a huge breath, and find a solution.

We tend to be more optimistic than reality sometimes is. The same happens with our to-do list. For example, we tend to plan in an environment where everything works well, and we have all the energy we need to accomplish even complex tasks.

What if you weren’t able to sleep well and because of that, you’re unable to focus as needed on that important task? Some people say that we always need to keep in mind the “if/then” model. In some cases, you’re able to reschedule and replan a task or deliverable. Of course, in the case of important deadlines, you can’t do that, so you’ll probably need an extra espresso to help you focus and get things done.

Tip: Meditation and any other type of mindfulness can help you in case things go wrong. Sometimes a breathing exercise or a long walk can help you come up with creative solutions to a problem or help boost your energy to complete that important to-do list item.

10 — Calendar blocking

I’m a huge fan of this technique. It helps me a lot in my daily work since I always have a bunch of meetings during the day, and I need to ensure I’ll have time blocked to accomplish important tasks in between meetings.

Calendar blocking can also help you plan a 15–20 minute break for every hour of focused work. Some research shows that people who can maintain this schedule had a higher level of focus and productivity in their work.

We have big and important tasks, but also small and less important tasks. One way to make sure each task will have the right amount of care and time is to use calendar blocking.

In my company, we have a no-meeting day. It’s on Thursday afternoons, and our calendar is blocked from meetings. Because of that, I usually reserve Thursday afternoons when I’m planning my week to work on tasks that need my focus and involve complex analysis and deliverables.

Tip: You can have your calendar blocked during lunch time to ensure you’ll have time to grab some food to eat.

11 — Kanban board

For those who know me, you know how passionate I am for the Kanban framework. Kanban (看板) is a Japanese word that means signboard or billboard. It is a scheduling system for lean and just-in-time manufacturing. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed Kanban to improve his manufacturing efficiency, and I write more about it in this post.

A Kanban board is no more than a prioritized list of things you need to do in order to complete your goal. The goal is to help your team make sure each part of the product is going to be prioritized and built with the same level of care at every step.

One important thing to note is that the Kanban focuses on status instead of due dates. You can create a physical Kanban board (my favorite) or a virtual one. The tools I most like are Trello and Asana. You’ll add at least three columns to your board: the To-do, the Doing, and the Done columns. For physical Kanban boards, your best friend will be a Sharpie and different colors of sticky notes.

The tasks will follow this To-do and Doing flow until it progresses to the last phase, the Done column, which are the completed and tested tasks. Ideally, you’ll have access to your board on a daily basis. For that reason, the virtual version can be really handy and useful.

Tip: Any task for which there is any kind of impediment should be on-hold until that impediment is resolved. While this happens, you can work on another task until you complete it.

12 — Future lists

The brain dump can help you transfer everything you have in your mind to paper. This includes future tasks. I usually have a separate page in my Bullet Journal for future tasks to ensure I don’t forget about them.

What I call future list is basically everything you’ll accomplish or want to accomplish further in the future, e.g., in 3 months. This list will help you to collect everything you want to do to, and then allocate time and schedule for completion or the steps you’ll need to take to complete it.

I like to set a deadline for those tasks and overall goals, and from time to time I review it and check to see if it still makes sense and if I’m still on track. You should also reevaluate and decide what goals and tasks don’t make sense anymore, so that you can remove these from your list.

You can also create a page in your journal or any place you store this type of information for deprioritized and deleted goals and tasks. It’s an interesting exercise to revisit this page from time to time to review your goals.

Tip: Remember this list is all about long-term and future goals. For example, a goal to learn a new language by a certain date can be a good future goal item for your list.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to reach me by email or comment on this post if you have a tip to share with me.

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Product Management 101

PM learnings in my journey at Silicon Valley

Thaisa Fernandes⚡

Written by

Program Manager @ Twitter. Latina in Tech. Based in San Francisco. Product Manager & Founder @ Lunna App. Vegan.

Product Management 101

PM learnings in my journey at Silicon Valley

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