3 Ways to Write Better To Do Lists and Get More Done

July 18, 2015

The Art of the Ultimate To Do List

Do you make To-Do Lists?  I love them.  I affectionately call them TTDs (Things To Do), and they are scattered around my house like autumn leaves on a windy day.

Things To Do: Breathe Research shows that making a To Do List is actually good for your brain.  Many people  feel a great sense of relief simply by writing items on a list – without even crossing  anything off it at all.

But do you fill page after page with massive, heart-stopping tasks?  Do you write things  illegibly on tiny scraps of paper that you then proceed to lose? Do you post sticky notes all over the wall, fridge, and computer screen til your world resembles a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind? Do you attempt to rely  on your smartphone, daydreaming longingly of the tactile satisfaction you experienced a decade ago when you used pen and paper?

How do we avoid these pitfalls? Here are 3 simple ways:

3 Steps to A More Effective To Do List

1) Keeping tasks specific and realistic can be difficult given that most projects require many steps in order to be completed. But if you want your list to be helpful, break your tasks down into bite-sized bits.  Your brain will thank you.

If you are a person who tends to create massive lists with large projects that will take a lot of time to complete (that would be me), keep a master list going and keep a daily running list short.  Keep that master list in an easy-to-reach, visible place.  But each morning, create a short daily list (3 to 6 tasks), breaking those large projects into small, concrete steps.

For some people, this may be a good way to use your handheld device to assist you (my friend Cheryl from MeadowMist Designs recommends an IPhone app called Wunderlist).  This way, you can add to your master list while you’re on the go.  Create a master list on your handheld device, and create your short, realistic daily lists on paper. It’s the best of both worlds.

2) Assign  a time of day and length of time for each task.  We often procrastinate if we glance at an item on our list, and feel overwhelmed by the enormous, vague threat of it.  Research shows that To Do Lists are infinitely more effective if you assign a time of day and a length of time to a particular task (hmmm… this sounds a lot like the old-fashioned Day-Timers of the past, doesn’t it? Maybe you need a Quilter’s Planner for 2017!)

3) Rank the 3 most important tasks of the day.  Let’s face it.  Most of us WILL NOT accomplish everything on our list every day.  So quit jerking yourself around. It’s just not feasible.  But we probably can choose 3 very important things that if accomplished, will move our minds and our lives forward, releasing us from the dismal analysis paralysis that so many of us face each day.

One More To-Do List Pitfall

There are times when an uncompleted item on a To Do List can weigh heavily, interfering with the ability to do the other things on the list.


In doing a little research, I learned that this effect is common.  It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect and it was discovered by a Russian, Jewish female psychologist way back in the 1920s (how cool is that?!?!) .  It turns out that people remember and think about unfinished tasks significantly more than completed ones.

When you cross something off your list, it’s like you’ve released it from your mind, letting it flutter away with a happy flock of other little tasks that made up your day.

flock of birds


I hope this is helpful, friends.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Jayne July 18, 2015 at 7:48 am

    I’ve been making sticking lists up for as long as I can remember! Maybe even before post-it notes were invented (not quite!) It helps when there are deadlines, must do’s and everything in between. Your really do have a sense of accomplishment crossing projects off your list. Especially when every thing is finished. Thank you for the great advice Stephanie!

  • Reply cheryljbrickey July 18, 2015 at 8:37 am

    I am a big to-do list maker. I use the iphone app Wunderlist to make my lists. That way I always have them (and I do not lose the piece of paper I used), you can give the tasks due dates, and sub-tasks.

  • Reply Jasmine July 18, 2015 at 10:03 am

    So interesting and helpful. I admit that I am more likely to make long-term to do lists than daily ones. But it is always fun crossing things off the list!

  • Reply Yvonne @Quilting Jetgirl July 18, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Lists are my jam! I actually just read that it might be best to keep “habits” off of your to-do lists, but I can certainly understand the joy of being able to cross something off a lit. I think the main reason that was given for the list separation was to keep you from feeling overwhelmed if your list was really long.

  • Reply capitolaquilter July 18, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Great post. I’ve never been much of a list maker until I started doing linky parties and setting goals. Sometimes when i write it down if feels ‘dealt with” and I get a false sense of completion. I also use to think that it was no harm no foul by including a bunch of things but then I’d feel like I let myself down and failed. Creating a smart list using your advise is the way to go.

  • Reply Beth @ Cooking Up Quilts July 18, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I LOVE to do lists! They keep me focused and on task. I try to review my list each night and add items for the next day and put them in order of which things I need to do first. I get much more accomplished working from a list. And crossing off items feels so good!

  • Reply allisonreidnem July 18, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    Thank you for this. I’m trying to figure out how to balance a list so I don’t get overwhelmed and just freeze but can be satisfied with taking small steps without getting to completion point. Procrastination is another problem – getting over the ‘don’t want to do it’ task so that others can flow. I remain a work in progress!

  • Reply Lisa July 18, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks Stephanie: This is quite useful. I do this kind of list at work in an old fashioned day planner but I haven’t thought of applying it to quilting. I often give myself a list of quilts I would like to finish which can be overwhelming although I’m not too hard on myself about them as it’s a hobby for me. I think the idea of breaking down the tasks for my quilting will be quite helpful. I’ll try it. I’ll be interested in your post about procrastination . I’m an expert at procrastinating.

  • Reply Diana @ Red Delicious Life July 19, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    I admit that I, too, am a bit OCD when it comes to list making. It just makes me happy and I feel more organized, even if I’m only able to check off the “get dressed” box. 🙂 An online list that I like to use is Ta-da lists but I just discovered that it’s no longer supported/accepting new members since there are so many other list making platforms available. I guess I’ve been grandfathered in with my account.

  • Reply RuthB July 20, 2015 at 4:00 am

    Very helpful, I’m a list maker and use Trello – i love the idea of picking 3 at the beginning of the day and focusing on getting those done!

  • Reply quiltyhabit July 20, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Yep, this sounds like me (the master list maker)! I have a master quilt list that I keep adding too. It helps me stay focused. I love the advice for keeping your goals specific – I need to work on that!

  • Reply Chelsea Huckins August 3, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Oh man, we are so alike! I have so many different ‘to do’ pads scattered around. Each day I start by making a to do list and putting the items in order of importance then go down through the list. I have tried using online to do lists but love the act of writing them out and crossing/checking things off when I am finished. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Leave Me a Note