How To Benefit From A To-Do List Even If You Have A Great Memory

A great to-do list is a map to a destination, not a stack of travel brochures

Nicole Peery
Jun 22 · 8 min read
Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

Do you ever struggle with turning your to do list into a to done list? Or maybe your tasks don’t get written down at all. They just troll around aimlessly in your noggin and poke you at inappropriate times.

I used to resist writing things down for 3 reasons:

  • I thought it was only for people who can’t remember things.
  • The number of things I ended up with on my list overwhelmed me.
  • I felt like a fraud for not using a fancy planner.

The reason I felt this way was an odd mixture of perfectionism and ignorance. I didn’t know how to make an effective to-do list.

I started seeing the value of to-do lists when I thought of them as detailed maps to a destination rather than a stack of travel brochures.

“Visit Thailand” is a hell of a lot more overwhelming than “research how to get a passport.”

That is, you know where you want to go, but instead of focusing on the ultimate destination you start with the first step. Then use your momentum to move you forward.

Before we dive into the process, let’s go over the “what’s in it for me” part.

Why Should You Bother With a To-do List?

Photo by Emma Matthews on Unsplash

It’s about managing your energy, sharing work, nipping procrastination, and celebrating your successes.

You’ll Have More Mental Energy for the Important Stuff

I am blessed (or is it cursed?) with a great memory. “I can’t remember” is not in my vocabulary. My memory is so good that other people often rely on me to remember things for them.

I don’t need reminders, so I never saw the point of writing things down. Until I realized that trying to remember everything all the time comes at a steep price.

Because I spent all of my energy remembering things, I had little left over to actually complete my tasks. And even less energy to enjoy my down time after my work was done.

When you take the time to make a to-do list, you’ll be able to spend your precious energy where it really counts.


It Will Help You Delegate Tasks

There will be times when you have to ask someone for help. I know, I know. I don’t like it either! 🤣

But if you aren’t clear on what needs done, how is anyone else supposed to know?

Having an organized and up-to-date to-do list makes delegation a snap. And asking for help keeps you sane!


You’ll Beat Procrastination Before It Starts

A to-do list keeps you organized and on track. Without a defined roadmap, you’ll either sit idle in traffic or drive in circles.

Doing doughnuts is fun and all, but we’ll have time for that when we get our work done.

An effective to-do list will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and you’ll be better equipped to avoid procrastination.


It Helps You See What You’ve Accomplished

Let’s get real — checking things off a list feels good! The best thing about a to-do list isn’t having a list of work you need to do, it’s seeing all the work you’ve done.

When you complete tasks as they come to you without writing them down, there’s no way to look back at the end of the day and see how far you’ve come.

Keeping a to-do list makes it easy to celebrate your successes.

How to Create a Kick-Ass To-do List

  • 🧠 brain spew
  • 🤔 identify
  • ❗️ prioritize
  • 🚙 parking lot
  • 🏷 categorize
  • ⚙️ break it down
  • ⏲ estimate
  • 🗓 schedule
  • 🎉 revisit and celebrate

Before You Start: Pick One Method and Stick To It

There are endless options for keeping a to-do list. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll be inundated with apps, services, websites, and products.

Maybe you’re a dollar store notepad kind of person. Perhaps you swoon over $50 planners. Say you hate paper and want to do everything electronically. Choose a method that works for you and stick to it. And don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.

If spending $50 on a planner isn’t your thing, a dollar store notebook works. If spending $50 on a planner makes you productive, don’t feel guilty about not using a dollar store notebook. If you hate paper and want an electronic to do list, that’s great. It all works!

The Process Explained

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

🧠 Brain Spew & Identify

Set a timer for 5–10 minutes and take out a sheet of paper or open up your favorite note taking app.

Start writing what’s on your mind. Don’t stop until that bitch-ass voice in your head stops, or is at least a little quieter. You know the one I’m talking about…

Now, revisit what you wrote. If the items you need to complete show up in your brain spew, highlight them.


❗️Prioritize

When looking at the things that came up in your brain spew, think about deadlines.

Are they things that need to be done today? Next week? A year from now?

Maybe at this point they’re just undefined ideas without a deadline.

Assign a priority to each highlighted item.


🚙 Create a Parking Lot

Now that your items have priorities, take anything that doesn’t have a deadline and put it in a parking lot.

It could be the back page of your planner, a separate document in your favorite note taking app, or a section of a notebook. Choose an out of the way place that makes you feel like you won’t lose the information but will have access to it when you need it.

This will placate the bitchy voice in your brain who nags you about things that need to be done because you’ll have recognized the thought. And it will get it out of your way so you can finish the tasks that need attention immediately.


🏷 Categorize

Take your prioritized, non-parked projects and categorize them. I find it helpful to use categories that correspond to the various sections of my life.

For example, I have a personal life, I blog for fun, and I freelance part-time. My project categories are:

  • Personal
  • Freelancing
  • Blog

If you only have one category, consider breaking it down into parts. For example, if my only section was business, I might categorize my tasks by:

  • Marketing/Promotion
  • Content Creation
  • Administrative
  • Business Development

Use categories that work for what’s going on in your life.


⚙️ Break it Down

Review the prioritized and categorized items. Man, that was a lot of work. Feeling overwhelmed? Then we need to start building our map.

Think about the first 3–5 steps you need to take to move you toward completion. For example, if one of my projects was “launch my website,” the first three tasks I’d need to complete might be:

  • Decide on a platform
  • Research hosts
  • Look into blog theme pricing

⏲ Estimate How Long Each Task Will Take

Take your broken down tasks for each of your items and estimate how much time they’ll take.

For example, deciding on a platform for my website might take a few days, researching hosts could take a few hours, and looking at theme prices would probably take a few minutes.


🗓 Schedule

You now have a prioritized, categorized, broken down, and time estimated list of tasks you need to complete.

Schedule your tasks based on priority and time to complete. Take your work style into consideration.

For example, if you have several low priority tasks that you can complete in a few minutes, will completing them fuel your fire or wear you down? Are you an “eat that frog” person or do you need some quick wins?


🎉 Revisit and Celebrate

Revisit your list based on your schedule and personal work style. Maybe you do a nightly revisit, or perhaps once a week is good enough for you.

This time, take a moment to recognize what you’ve accomplished and celebrate your successes.

Revisit the items that came up during your last brain spew. Figure out 3–5 more tasks that will move you forward on those items. Then categorize, prioritize, and establish completion times.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Brain spew as needed. And don’t forget to peek at that parking lot once in a while!

I know this looks like a lot of work. But once you’ve done it a few times it will take between 5–10 minutes of your time. Still not on board?

This process has seen me through:

  • Getting an MBA while working a full-time job
  • Selling my house and moving across the United States
  • Picking up web development and graduating from a bootcamp-style program in 3 months
  • Working remotely for the last 4 years
  • And more!

I hope you can snag a few things from my craziness and weave it into yours. And hey, I’d love to hear your ideas. Do you keep a running list of things you need to get done? What’s your process?

Find me elsewhere: Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Nicole Peery

Written by

Front-end web developer | Desert dweller | Tiny space live-r | I write about desert living, web development, productivity, & more.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

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