How to Write a Better To-Do List

How to Write a Better To Do List - Arianna Belle Blog - Photo by Yvonne  Bauer

I’ve been reading the book Getting Things Done by David Allen and have enjoyed learning about his approach to productivity.  One of the things from the book that I have started putting into practice and have found useful is to ask myself, “what’s the next action?” when adding things to my to-do list.   Here’s a look at what a few items on my to-do list would have typically looked like prior to me considering the next action question:

  • replace broken steamer piece
  • recover sofa chair
  • buy file boxes
  • get boots fixed

At first glance the to-do’s seem fairly straightforward but, when I would look at items like this on my list, for some reason I would find myself resisting them.  They’d often get pushed back and continue to remain incomplete. Why? Mr. Allen explains that most actionable items require some quick thought and planning steps before we can precisely define what has to happen to complete them. Do you need to research something? Gather certain information? Contact someone? He says that the thinking exercise for each item is something that has to happen at some point or another and it’s better to complete it early on because “if you haven’t identified the next physical action required to kick-start [an item], there will be a psychological gap every time you think about it even vaguely.” (pg. 130)

Here’s the same list re-written after taking the time to think about the next physical action required for each of my items:

  • get model number of steamer for replacement piece
  • research fabric options for sofa chair
  • measure optimal size for file boxes to go in closet
  • research shoe repair places on yelp

In order to replace the broken steamer piece, I have to first get the model number so that I can contact customer service with that information.  Before I can recover my sofa chair, I first have to find the right fabric.  Before I actually go out and buy the file boxes, I need to first measure the space I’m putting them in so I know they’ll fit and I’ll know what to look for when I’m at the store.  To get my boots fixed, I need to first find a repair place to take them to. The idea is to have all my thinking completed about the steps of an actionable item so that when I have a window of time to get something done, I can use the tools I have (computer, phone, etc.) and the location I’m in (at office, at home, out running errands, etc.) to cross more things off my list, having already defined what exactly there is to do.

To be honest, I don’t always write my to-do’s this way.  It’s a habit I’m trying to develop. Sometimes I’m in a rush and write down something non-specific because I just need to quickly dump things out of my head.  If this happens, I try to look back over my list when I’m not so rushed, and re-write the vague things on my list to make them specific next-action items.

Have any of you read Getting Things Done? I’m working on putting other recommendations from the book into practice and will report back here letting you all know how it goes.

photograph above by Yvonne Bauer of the blog Fraeulein Klein

This entry was posted in lists, organization, productivity, time management. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to Write a Better To-Do List

  1. As a person that absolutely loves to-do lists, this was a great post! I think a lot of people will love it- so relevant to everybody’s lives!

  2. lulu240788 says:

    Hmm… Interesting! I’ve broken down my to do lists a bit in the past, but this explains it so well! I’ll have to try it.

  3. Ingrid says:

    I really liked this post, but am dying to know what nail polish that is she’s wearing! It’s gorgeous!

  4. kara_v says:

    I have made it my goal to begin making to do lists. I tend to be forgetful and also often wake up in the middle of the night making lists in my mind, only to forget them in the morning.

    Do you have recommendations for beautiful (and larger) notebooks you use to make your lists? I find when I have beautiful things to use, I actually perform the action I’m trying to inspire in myself.

  5. Nancy says:

    Thank you so very much for recommending this book! I bought it, implemented it and it has completely changed my level of effectiveness! I’m working more than full time, trying to finish a PhD and decorate an apartment and was completely burned out for a lot of the reasons David Allen identifies in this book. What a difference a week makes! Your best recommendation ever!

  6. Camille Iman says:

    Loving this post! I am a always writing to do lists everywhere but always have a hard time getting through my infinite lists. I stare at my lists sometimes wondering why I can’t figure out what to do next. Thank you for sharing and I’m intrigued to read David’s book!

  7. Megan // Honey We're Home says:

    I make a list everyday and kind of do this too. One “to do” can turn into 5!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *