Five to-do list tricks to help you work smarter

There are countless apps for creating to do lists, but the skill of writing a to do list is a method that, when perfected, can work on any medium.

Today we want to focus on how to work smarter, not harder. So how can strong to do list writing skills help you in that pursuit? We consulted with a few of the online productivity experts to find out.

Here are the top five tips we found.

1. Break it down

Got a big task? Break it down into its constituent parts. Ideally each action on a to-do should take no more than about 20 minutes.

One way to break things down is by using what Kevan Lee calls a 1-3-5 list. No, to do list haters, unfortunately this does not mean missing out items 2 and 4! Instead, what it means is prioritising like so:

“Write down one big thing, three medium things and five small things that you will be able to get done tomorrow. Do this the night before so that you eliminate the early-morning rush to remember what’s on your agenda.”

Another way to do this is to choose 1-3 MITs or Most Important Tasks. Like part 1 of your 1-3-5s, these are the biggest tasks that you really need to get done today.

As Belle Cooper writes,

“The rest of your to-do list can be filled up with minor tasks that you’d like to do, so long as you’ve prioritized 1–3 MITs. Make sure you work on these before you move on to anything minor and you’ll probably find you feel a whole lot more productive at the end of the day.”

Still stuck on the idea of prioritising your tasks? Try another post from Belle Cooper on How to Ruthlessly Prioritise Your Task List.

2. Work on your phrasing

Now that you know what your most important tasks are, and you’ve written them down, it’s time to make that list look a little bit more appealing.

We found a great trick that’s used by a couple of ultra productive experts that will really get your synapses firing as soon as you look at your list.

While key words will bring to mind the tasks at hand, using evocative words in the list itself can help motivate you to get started.

Merlin Mann of 23 Folders recommends this construction: “verb the noun with the object.”

Marie Forleo describes this as verberizing your to-do list. Listen to how much simpler and less intimidating it makes each task sound.

Which one gets you raring to go?

“To do list”
“Write tomorrow’s to do list on whiteboard?”

Try this on paper or in your favourite to do list app and let us know how you get on!

3. Focus, divide and conquer

Jeff Haden of has another great tip that goes hand-in-hand with Kevan’s suggestion about writing your to do list the night before.

Jeff’s tip: focus only on today. You may have a master list with all the things you need to get done. As an additional step, he suggests separating today’s list from the master list. He says:

“My solution is to make a big list of everything I need to do. Then, every night, I move a few things to my to-do list for the next day. (I use one big list with priority markers so that anything “high” priority moves to the top and becomes part of my “today” list.)

That lets me focus on what I must do today, but it also gives me a place to dump every little task I think of that someday must get done.”

Got some overflow? That’s ok – you can still keep things simple while separating out your to dos over a few contextual lists. Just don’t let them multiply!

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done technique includes writing separate lists for home and work. Leo says:

“Keep simple, context lists. For example, a work list, a home list, an errands list, a future list…

Reduce to the essential. Only keep the goals and tasks that are most important and valuable.”

Easier said than done, right? Well, if sticking to your to do list (or lists!) is difficult for you, you’ll like our next tip.

4. Create balance with an anti to-do list

Marc Andressen blew the minds of almost every productivity blogger we follow with his concept of the Anti To-Do List.

Now, before you go throwing out what we’ve said above, we better make the definition clear. The Anti To-Do List is not against the to-do list, but a list of actions already taken. It complements the to-do list while saving you from those inner demons that make you feel like your day has been a waste. As Joel Gascoigne in Fast Company puts it:

“Just like how you get a little rush by crossing something off your to-do list, the Anti-To-Do List goes even further and suggests that you actually write the items down fresh, and write all the additional tasks you end up accomplishing which weren’t necessarily on your to do list.”

He goes on to describe how it has worked for him, saying:

“This has given me an extraordinary feeling of productivity and fulfillment, and I’ve found it helps me sustain my productivity throughout the week, whereas previously I would be “knocked down” a little by the fact I sometimes had extra things come up that I needed to complete.”

Note: The tasks on your anti to do list will often be the non-MITs on your list. Keeping an anti to do list is also a great way to track your progress. Are there items which are consistently on your anti list which you keep forgetting to add to your main to do list? Compare your lists and see what you’re missing out and if there are any sticking points where you are wasting time.

5. Test and adjust

The art of the to do list is one that might be honed for years. We suggest beginning with the tips above, then testing and adjusting according to what works for you.

You can also compare your lists week to week and find out how much you got done and which methods worked best.

As with any other testing phase, measure your results — not the time spent. Your new style of to do list writing will evolve over time.

Bonus tips

Still not convinced? Lists aren’t for everyone, so we delved a little bit deeper. Beyond those 5 tips, we also found some great ways to change the way you think about your to do list.

For the more visually-focussed among us, Belle Cooper wrote another great piece for Zapier with some great tips for visualising your to do list.

She suggests zooming out and getting creative with visual tools like post-its, calendar layouts and doodles (for the designers amongst us, it’s also a great excuse to buy some new colourful pens and post-its…) – take a look.

Still need a techie tool to get yourself started? Lifehacker suggests five to do list managers for you to try.

Do you have any to do list tricks to add to the list? Share them below or tweet us @ShareflowHQ!