Making the Most of Your Weekly To-Do List

A to-do list with washi tape in an Ink+Volt Planner opened to a filled-in calendar page.

So much to do, so little time.

Undoubtedly, there comes a day when you have so many tasks there is no way you’ll find the time to finish all of them. Even if you stay really focused, work and life never stop, and there is always more to do.

And even if you can manage to squeeze every single thing into your schedule, could you be doing it more efficiently? Are you leaving anything out? Are you sure?

The simplest way to make sure your answer is a confident “I got this!” to all of those questions is the tried and true weekly to-do list.

It’s so simple. It’s efficient. It saves time. And most of all, it relieves anxiety.

Why you need a weekly to-do list

Psychologists time and time again find that the human brain likes patterns and loves organization. Psychologist and author Dr. David Cohen told the Guardian that lists help for three main reasons:

  • “they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; 
  • they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; 
  • and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week, or month.”

It’s true. To-do lists show you what’s coming up, but also what you’ve completed. That can serve as a motivator, even if you don’t finish everything on your list every day. Maybe you didn’t send every email you wanted to, but you were able to send off that really important pitch or meet a deadline that really mattered.

Similarly, researchers at Wake Forest University found that making a list of tasks can result in much lower anxiety levels. It takes the burden off of yourself to remember every single thing you have to get done.

“The human mind is remarkably well designed for goal pursuit,” the researchers wrote.

They describe the to-do list as a roadmap to the day, and with a roadmap, the mind becomes more focused on doing amazing work -- since you have freed up the part of your brain that would have otherwise been working on remembering what you needed to do.

There is no wrong way to do a to-do list. But there are ways to make it work more effectively, like posting it where you can see it all day -- or even where others can see it. That can be especially helpful when the tasks are daunting. If you know people know about your to-do list, you’ll be more likely to finish the tasks even when you don’t feel like it.

We love the idea of a weekly to-do list because it is the perfect balance between the big picture and your immediate circumstances. When you think week-by-week, it gives you a chance to think broadly about the whole month while still being small enough to help you strategize day-by-day.

Looking at your entire week helps keep you from flying by the seat of your pants when you arrive to work every morning. By setting aside time to plan every week, you give yourself a chance to check in where you are going in the big picture, and then be strategic about the tasks you choose to work on to get you to those big goals.

The beginning: where to start with your weekly to-do list

We recommend a weekly Sunday night or Monday morning ritual (we call it a weekly ninja planning session) which gives you a chance to unwind over the weekend, and then start to create mental space for the week ahead. You have time to reflect on the big picture and then start to drill down on the most important tasks you have coming up.

Start with the first things that come to mind. Look at your calendar, if you keep one, or your inbox. They’re both kind of a built-in to-do list already.

Sometimes it helps to make and update your to-do lists before you hit your pillow. That way you can sleep easy knowing that you’re already prepared for the upcoming day. Suddenly it will become a habit and become easier and easier each night. It’s best to revisit the list the next morning with clarity and a new outlook on the day. Maybe something you thought you had to do the day before, really shouldn’t be on the list. Sleeping on it can be a big help. 

Make your weekly to-do list really work

Often, the best to-do lists are the simplest ones, because they are laser-focused on the most important work that needs to get done.

But for big weeks (which honestly, might be most weeks, depending on your job and lifestyle), a little more structure is required to wrangle the many items that need to be on your schedule.

Being more detailed can help you think through your day, get organized, and complete more. It takes a little more time, but ends up being completely worth it, because not only are you recounting all of the things you have planned and have to do, but it also helps you do them efficiently.

Being more detailed in your to-do list means taking the extra steps to look up things like phone numbers you’ll need to call or making notes on what exact information should be included in the emails you need to send.

By front-loading this work as you’re creating the to-do list, you won’t need to look up these details that would slow you down when you’re in the flow of your busy week.

Useful details that you could include on a to-do list can be:

  • A deadline — this will help you prioritize the most important tasks. 
  • Priority — if you run out of time in the day, you’ll at least know that you got the big stuff done.
  • Important details — any details that can help you expedite or clarify are important, like the time an event, where to go, or the dress code. If you need to pick up a gift for somebody, put some notes about what you’re looking for or a convenient place to shop on your way to the event.
  • Important items to bring — if you need to remember to take things with you, like paperwork or a check, make sure to include that in the notes of the to-do. Sometimes you’ll even be able to combine tasks (like a trip to the bank) just because you were thinking ahead of time and noticed similar tasks.
  • How long the task should take — this may help with not getting drudged down with the task itself. For example, if an afternoon meeting is scheduled for one hour, put that.

There are tons of apps that help with making lists, but writing it down may be your best bet. Actually writing it down, like journaling, can commit it to memory. Word documents or computer notes can get closed or lost in the clutter, and you may also be distracted while you type it out.

Another tip: it’s okay to mix your professional to-do list items and personal to-do list items. In fact, it will probably keep you a little more organized and probably happier, since your personal life and professional life will always affect each other, even in small ways.

It prevents leaving some important personal things behind in your weekly planning — like a doctor’s appointment or a haircut — which could end up costing you more money if you forget to show up or show up late.

And let us not forget that self-care is important. Sometimes putting it on the list of things to do means it actually gets done, and you’ll be so much better off for it.

So yes, it’s okay to add “face mask + wine” to the end of your list. You can rehydrate and decompress while planning your next busy day.

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