5 Effective Ways to Optimize Your Daily To-Do List

A planner open to a long to-do list.

The purpose of a daily to-do list is to help you maximize your time, but for many of us, it becomes an overwhelming list of jobs that never seem to get done.

If you’re someone who relies on a list when planning your day but wants to boost the efficiency of it, here are five ways to optimize your to-do list for greater productivity.

1. Coordinate your digital and analog planning tools

There’s no shortage of organizational tools to pick from, but finding the right ones for you is the difference between success and chaos. You might prefer to use paper and pen to jot down your tasks for the day in a notebook or journal, or you might like the versatility and convenience of technology that enables you to move tasks around easily, block out chunks of time and receive notifications to keep you on track throughout the day.

Think about the features you need from an organizational tool so you can choose the best option for the task at hand. Keep in mind that plenty of people use a hybrid system, combining paper and digital.

If your office team all share a digital calendar for meetings and deadlines, for example, you can still plot out your personal goals and daily to-dos in a paper planner - so you get the best of both worlds.

Here’s a collection of some of the most widely used to-do list apps out there:

  1. Todoist - for balancing power and simplicity
  2. TickTick - for embedded calendars and timers
  3. Microsoft To Do - for Microsoft power users (and Wunderlist refugees)
  4. Things - for elegant design
  5. Habitica - for making doing things fun
  6. Google Tasks - for Google power users
  7. Remember The Milk - for keyboard shortcut lovers
  8. Any.do - for people who forget to use to-do apps

2. Understand what’s important

If a large proportion of your to-do tasks regularly don’t get completed, the reason is most likely that you're simply overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities you need to deal with. If your to-do list is unrealistically long, you aren't doing yourself any favors.

The key is to assess what’s really important so that you don’t waste time or set unrealistic expectations.

The Eisenhower prioritization matrix is a tool that can be used to determine what’s really urgent and what can wait, and it’s a powerful time management tool. There are four categories that you can divide all of your tasks into:  

  • Urgent and important tasks
  • Non-urgent but still important tasks
  • Urgent but unimportant tasks
  • Non-urgent and unimportant tasks

Categorizing your tasks in this way will help you outline your to-do list into a truly effective structure for your day. When you know what is important and what is not, you can make smarter choices about where to start and what to let go.

Start with what’s urgent and needs to be done straight away - these items should be at the top of your to-do list.

Then look at what’s important and needs to be scheduled for later. Sometimes these tasks can be tempting to work on first (if your higher priority items aren't as appealing), but knowing that they can be scheduled for later will allow you to leave them for later confidently.

Next, assess what you can delegate and which tasks don’t need to be on the list at all. It can be tempting to add these items to the bottom of your to-do list ("just in case") but because these are not important tasks to be done by you, it's essential to let them go.

Rob Da Costa, agency coach, believes that there’s actually a fifth category to these four categories: “’Automate it’. Because there are so many great apps and useful productivity tools that means sometimes, we can get more efficient by using automation to take those repetitive tasks off our plates".

3. Audit your time

You can’t manage your time effectively if you don’t know where it’s going, making your to-do list null and void. It’s easy to believe that you’re spending 30 minutes checking emails, but the reality might be that it’s eating into over an hour of your day. 

If every task you’ve listed on your to-do list takes longer than you think it will, it can be difficult to get everything done. There are apps you can use, such as Toggl or RescueTime, which will give you a clearer idea of how long your regular tasks take you so you can schedule your time more effectively. 

Alternatively, you can carry out a manual audit to assess how you’re using your time. Staff monitoring specialists, Hubstaff say, “The purpose of conducting an audit is to identify areas of focus during a standard workday. So, be sure it is indeed a "standard" workday you are tracking. If you’ve got a ton of unusual meetings or will be out of the office for a while you’ll want to reschedule your first-time audit for a better day.” 

4. Prioritize quick wins for a burst of motivation

Once you’ve assessed how long each of your usual tasks tends to take you, it will be easier to categorize tasks into either "quick" or "time-consuming", which will help you prioritize.

The feeling of satisfaction you get from crossing off a job on your to-do list can be a great motivator for working through the rest of the list, so you can use this to your advantage by scheduling quick wins first. 

Pick out the tasks that don’t take much time and work on them first – or you can even break down bigger jobs into smaller tasks to make it more manageable. This method works by enabling you to see everything you’ve accomplished later in the day when you might be struggling to stay motivated. 

5. Try a mind map

Mind mapping is a powerful tool that can boost productivity, improve memory retention, and enable you to categorize information more clearly. Mind maps are a visual representation of the ideas you have or information you need to remember, that can work more effectively for visual people who don’t gravitate towards the traditional list system. 

When you start, pick a central theme or goal that you’re working towards and branch out from there with the important things you can think of. For example, if you have a big project on your to-do list, put that project name at the center of your page. Then use the mind map system to break it down into smaller tasks that branch off from the main task, and from there you can brain dump ideas, thoughts, and information you need to remember for each of these smaller areas.

Keep going until you’ve transferred everything surrounding that topic onto paper. From here, you can prioritize tasks, color code the information, or add details - whatever format makes the most sense for the way you work.

Manage your time more effectively with a smart to-do list

To-do lists are only effective at helping you manage your time if you use them in a way that suits you.

From ticking off quick wins first for a motivational boost to categorizing your tasks so you can block out your day more effectively, these optimization hacks will ensure your to-do list functions as it’s supposed to.


Today's post is a guest post from Gemma Hart. 

Gemma Hart works remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Since graduating many moons ago, Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her personal brand and connecting with leading experts in productivity and education. Connect with her on Twitter: @GemmaHartTweets

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