It's easy to be busy and a lot harder to be effective.

Ever felt like you're in a world of chaos?

Always busy but not getting the satisfaction of ticking off what really matters at the end of the day?

Feeling unorganised with no real plan to follow. Or not even sure you're focusing your efforts in the right direction?

Woman juggling to do lists

It's time for a To Do List. Get ready to feel instant relief as soon as all those 'To Do's' are out of your head and organised in one place.

The Key is to be smart about the way you set up your To Do List and use it so that it works effectively for you.

Women feeling happy and productive using her to do list successfully

Follow these proven strategies to set up and use your To Do List effectively

This step by step plan includes 4 phases. 

  • Planning 
  • Set-up
  • Scheduling
  • Progress 

Start from phase 1 and work your way through. By the end of phase 4 you will have a motivational To Do List, you'll feel in control with a plan to follow that will help you achieve what matters!  


Most of us don't take time out to plan. This is your chance to give yourself a clear space to dream and work out what you really want.

Step 1 - Big Goals - decide what matters.

  • Grab a cup of coffee or your choice of beverage, sit down and forget about what has to be done today, tomorrow, next week or even this month.
  • This is your time to have a good think about the big picture. 
  • Work from the top down, starting with life goals. What really matters, what do you want to achieve or do?
  • Choose a time frame. For example the next 2, 5 or 10 years, its up to you.
  • Here is a example set of Big Goals
European Travel 2020
Launch new website
Backyard make-over
Goals hand written on a serviette beside a dup of coffee

Step 2 - Sub-Goals - break it down

  • Focus on one big goal at a time and make a list of sub-goals for each.
  • The sub-goals are milestones on your way to the bigger goal.
  • Repeat for all your big goals, breaking down each into a set of sub-goals. 
  • The purpose of step 2 is to change your perception. Often these big goals seem overwhelming and unreachable. Having a set of sub-goals, is like a road map to follow taking you to your destination. Once you have this defined plan your goals will start to feel within reach.  
  • Having this list of sub-goals also helps you to stay motivated. Each time you achieve a sub-goal, make sure to recognise it as a milestone in your progress and celebrate it!
  • Now you have a motivational to do list !
  • In the example below  we use the Big Goal - Backyard Make-over, to show the possible list of sub-goals.
Backyard Make-Over Design
Labour Hire
Plant Selection
Sunflower big goal, with sub-goals in each leaf

Step 3 - Tasks - "the nuts and bolts"

  • Now you start to get into the nitty gritty. Its time to drill down on each sub goal & create a list of 'tasks' that are required in order to complete that sub goal.
  • These are real-life actionable tasks. Ones you're motivated to get done because you're confident that no matter how small they may seem, they are part of the plan as a step towards achieving those sub goals and ultimately your big picture goals
  • In the example below focusing on the Design sub-goal, this example shows your possible list of associated tasks.
nuts and bolts of different sizes on black background
Backyard Make-Over Design List wants & needs
Rough Sketch
Mark out first area

To Do List Set-Up

This phase is about creating a To Do List that your actually motivated by. You've taken the time to plan, the key now is to be strategic in how you create your lists and add your tasks so they work for you.

Step 4 - One big goal = One To Do List

  • In phase one (planning) you came up with a list of Big Goals each with a set of sub goals, and the nuts and bolts (tasks) for each sub goal.
  • Create a separate To Do Lists for each big goal.  
  • By having separate lists you will feel more organised and less overwhelmed by one long seemingly never ending one
  • Show each Big Goal as a separate To Do List.
Backyard make-over Launch new website European travel

Step 5 - Specific and Actionable Tasks

  • Your list of nuts and bolts for each sub-goal are tasks that can be entered into your To Do Lists. 
  • Before you do this look at each one individually and make sure they are specific and actionable.   
  • Each one should be something you can really work on and accomplish and each is a step towards achieving your bigger goals
  • Using the "list wants & needs" task from the Backyard Make-Over big goal as an example, you can see that this has been turned into a more specific task including an action to take.
List wants & needs Call family meeting to get everyones ideas on what they would like in the backyard
Example of a specific, actionable travel to do list task about booking a flight.


It's make or break time. You've set yourself up well. The steps below cover techniques that lead to the all important scheduling, the art of arranging your tasks so you can achieve them in the time you have available.

Step 6 - Add Time Estimates

  • Now that you have your lists of specific actionable tasks its time to estimate how long you think it will take you to complete each one. 
  • If you're using a spreadsheet add a column and add your time estimates to each task.
  • Time estimates make a long To Do List look less intimidating.
  • The time estimates are also important as once these tasks are scheduled you'll know you have a realistic plan for the day, one you're confident you actually have time to achieve.  

Step 7 - Add Deadlines

  • Add deadlines for each task. A deadline is the date that a task has to be finished by.
  • This creates accountability and is also important when it comes to scheduling as it will effect your start dates. Some work will need to be started well in advance of the deadline to complete it.
  • Some To Do Lists have functions that allow you to sort your lists. 
  • Sorting your list by deadlines is a great way to prioritise your To Do List
Calendar showing task deadlines and a clock signifying time estimates.

Step 8 - Prioritise - the end of procrastination

  • Give each task a priority.
  • A good place to start is to prioritise by deadline.
  • Prioritising helps you get more out of the set time you have.
  • It's is one of the cornerstones of productivity and a proven strategy to eliminate procrastination. 
  • Once your list is scheduled, it will give you a priority of the most urgent tasks for the day.  
  • In step 5 we will give you some ideas as to how to prioritise this daily list, to make sure you get a good start to the day.
Prioritising your to do list is a proven strategy to eliminate procrastination and helps you get more done in the time you have.

Step 9 - Task Scheduling

  • Now that you have a set of specific actionable tasks, with time estimates, deadlines and priorities, you are ready for the next strategy, scheduling.
  • The easiest and most effective way to schedule your tasks is using an Excel spreadsheet that has built in macros and sorting features. Once you've added your time estimates, deadlines and priorities the spreadsheet automation can auto schedule your tasks for you.
  • Changes you make to your lists, for example a task completed or adjusting the length of time a task is going to take to complete can be rescheduled automatically by the spreadsheet.
  • This prevents you from overloading your to do list with a never ending list of tasks, most likely to become a source of anxiety. 
  • Instead you will feel confident that your list of tasks if realistic and achievable in the set time you have. 
Hand written Pen & Paper
Calendar MS Outlook, Google Calendar or Diary
App Wunderlist
Excel Spreadsheet To Do List
Calendar with three ticks as an example of a task schedule

Step 10 - Prioritise Daily Scheduled Tasks

Now you should have a list of scheduled tasks for each day. Here are some ideas as to how to prioritise these daily tasks.

  • Do it the day before. Planning tomorrows list at the end of each day is the most important thing you can do to increase productivity. Why? 
  • Its a chance look over what you've accomplished today, appreciate your efforts and feel motivated.
  • Planning for tomorrow will give you a prioritised plan which leaves no room for time wasting procrastination.
  • Instead you are ready to hit the ground running first thing the next day.

Below are some strategies for prioritising your daily tasks

  • Top 3 for the day. You might determine these by: 
    • Most impact towards achieving your sub-goal.
    • An unfinished task from the day before.
    • Most urgent deadline
  • Group tasks together based on:
    • Tasks requiring high focus & concentration levels. Prioritise these for the time of the day that your productivity levels are higher.  
    • Easier tasks that require little effort or concentration. These can be prioritised at a time of the day you feel less switched on or fatigued.
Hopscotch on footpath, signifying priority one, two and three

Focus On Progress

Analysis of your To Do List is a key strategy to make sure you are on track to achieving your goals. Its easy to get caught up in the day to day to do's, but it's really important to take that step back and look at the big picture.

Step 11 - Use daily & review progress

  • In order for your To Do List to work effectively for you it needs to become a daily tool used to manage your time. 
  • The truth is, any tool is only as good as the habits you build around it. If we don't have effective practices to keep our To Do List up to date then it just won't work.
  • So this step is to lock in a regular analysis time to review your progress 
  • Decide right now how often and when you will take time to analyse your To Do Lists progress
  • Lock it in now as a regular 'To Do'
  • Some To Do Lists come with built in analysis tools to view your progress. Choose which type of view suits you.
Calendar Calendar tool can give you a Monthly view of your scheduled tasks, and which ones are on track or overdue.
Timeline This can be useful especially if you are using your To Do List for project management purposes. Eg A gantt schedule for activities accross teams & timeframes over a rolling 12 week window
Dashboard A great visual snapshot of your progress. Dashboards can be customised, so you can display different views. Eg Total hours (completed, in progress, not started) by list over time. Or Hours remaining by list.
A to do list dashboard showing three types of analysis charts
To Do List calendar showing task allocated to certain days of the month
Gantt schedule view of to do list activities accross projects, teams and timeframes.

Step 12 - Make changes required to stay on track

  • During this analysis ask yourself if there any tasks taking longer than expected?
  • If so you need to allow extra time and re-schedule.
  • Do you need to delegate some tasks?
  • Have I got any upcoming events not previously planned for?
  • This means certain tasks for those days need to be re-scheduled in order to stay on track.
  • When you have completed your analysis make the necessary changes to stay on track to achieving your goals.
Bullseye target on blue background

Thank you for reading "How to Effectively Use a To Do List." Now you are ready to take action and create your to do list to get what really matters to you done, and feel great about it!

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