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    For some, the modern to-do list is the fruit of all frustration and a nagging, never-ending reminder of tasks that only grows ever-longer. For others, the to-do list is the inception point of productivity and a sacred strategy to an efficient workday. Luckily, if your experiences resemble the former you are not tethered to daunting to-do lists forever. The difference lies in how you prioritize and write your action items, so with just a few structural changes, you are sure to have a perfectly organized to-do list. From the 102-year old productivity hack worth $400,000 to the psychology behind the “nagging” effect experienced when tasks are left uncompleted, we have compiled the strategies to writing an effective to-do list and making your workday more productive.


    The first step to an effective to-do list is merely writing it down. Although seemingly elementary and inferred as part of the process, this rudimentary measure is arguably the most critical step, as it initiates the plan towards completion. It may be easy to resist this type of structure – perhaps you prefer creating your list in your head. However, writing the list alone relieves the mind of the anxiety that accompanies unfinished action items, allowing you to perform the day’s tasks more effectively.

    In a study from Wake Forrest University, two groups of participants were instructed to complete a warm-up activity and perform a range of functions. Individuals that were asked to draft a to-do list completed the warm-up exercise and subsequent task to a higher quality than participants that worked without creating a to-do list beforehand. You might want to reconsider the next time you elect to keep your day’s action items in your head, as writing them down will make you more effective in performing them. 


    If your to-do list continuously grows longer without any relief of completion in sight, you are not alone. 41% of to-do list items are never completed, and feeling distracted by these unfinished tasks is not entirely in your head. The Zeigarnik effect insists that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than completed ones, which explains why your mind may stressfully linger on the unfinished half of your list. Keeping your to-do list short and sweet can help alleviate the intrusive thoughts attached to these incomplete tasks.

    Plus, this strategy has stood the test of time. In 1918, Charles M. Schwab hired productivity consultant, Ivy Lee, to improve the efficiency of his company, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Lee offered his strategy for free and instructed Schwab only to compensate him if the company’s productivity improved. After three months, Ivy Lee received a $25,000 check – worth $400,000 today – for his services, as Schwab was immensely impressed by the dramatic increase in his company’s productivity. Coined the Ivy Lee method, individuals are instructed to list six tasks to be completed the next day, ranked by importance. No more than six tasks must be listed; otherwise, the list becomes distracting. An effective way of keeping the list short is by writing it on a Post-it Note or index card. At the beginning of the day, individuals must focus on the first task until completion, working only on one item at a time. If all tasks are completed, a new list can be created. If not, the unfinished tasks move onto the next day’s agenda.

    This method works so effectively because it forces individuals to make tough decisions, such as prioritizing the top six items from a possibly much longer list of uncompleted tasks. By imposing these limits and planning the next day’s tasks the night before, individuals reduce the friction and indecision that come with starting a new workday unplanned, improving overall productivity and work quality. 


    The secret to properly prioritizing the six tasks on your to-do list: detail, detail, detail. Writing each task as a specific action item allows you to break general, formidable items into smaller, more manageable ones, giving you a framework towards completion that you would not have otherwise. Each item on your to-do list should be a physical task that can be completed in one sitting. For example, you might rewrite “work on proposal” as “research availability and costs of vendors for proposal.” Specificity gives your to-do list direction by limiting the amount of indecision that goes into completing a task. By predetermining how you will work on a proposal, you decrease the time spent pondering how to get started. To streamline the task further, you may even include the vendor’s contact information when drafting your to-do list the night before. The more thorough you are in writing the task, the more manageable the task becomes.  

    At WaveOffice, we believe productivity and wellbeing start with design and your to-do list is no different. A simple restructuring of your list with our tips and tricks will make your tasks more manageable and your workday more efficient – no $400,000 check required.