Building a better to-do list

to do list(Laura’s note: I’m taking a vacation from blogging this week, and I’m re-posting a few pieces from the archives that you may have missed the first time around. I hope you enjoy them!)

Everyone has her own particular productivity rituals. That’s why I’m somewhat averse to preaching mine, as if it is the One True Path. Different people are going to have different things that work for them. If it involves an elaborate tech system, I won’t do it. I probably also won’t do it if it involves filing papers or cleaning my desk.

But here’s how my system works. I have my List of 100 Dreams, an unedited list of anything I want to do or have in life. This list is constantly evolving as I come up with new ideas, cross off ones I’ve tried, or decide that others no longer fit with my vision of myself. But these are the long term goals.

Then I have my Year-End list. You might think of this in terms of what you’d say in a year-end performance review, or in that wretched genre of literature known as the family holiday letter. Writing in December, what would you list as the major highlights of the year? For me, in 2011, I knew that professionally, I wanted to finish the manuscript of my book, All The Money In The World, while still supporting publicity for 168 Hours. On the personal front, I was pretty sure we would move, so the goal was to choose a new home that would work for our family. I also hoped we would add to the family, though with something like that, you have to recognize that you don’t really control whether it happens or not. But we were very blessed that little Ruth arrived safely in October.

All these lists are very broad and big — and probably don’t look at all like what most people think of as a to-do list. But they’re important, because while serendipity is great, some things — like writing a 100,000 word novel, or running a marathon — tend not to just happen by accident. These are planned accomplishments.

But then what? Then it’s time to break these big goals down into doable steps. And here, finally, is where we get to the practical matter of life as we actually live it. My big realization over the past few years is that a weekly priority list gives me a nice mix between the immediate and the long-term. Before the start of the week (either on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening) I make a list of weekly priorities.  This priority list encompasses both the professional and the personal. This includes things that “have” to happen (a doctor appointment, articles I’ve already committed to turn in) and things that I’d like to have happen: new article ideas, long-term planning, running a certain number of times.

Then, each day I make a daily to-do list off this weekly priority list. I tend to front load the week, because things will come up that I want to make time for later in the week. Coming up with the right balance of an aggressive, but not overly ambitious weekly priority list takes time. But as with anything, we get better with practice.

How do you structure your to-do lists? Do you make separate personal and professional ones or do they all go together? Do you do just daily, or do you have longer lists as well?

(Photo courtesy flickr user crystl)



4 Responses to Building a better to-do list


  1. ARC says:

    I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do, now that my day to day life is very different. I sort of put off big goals while I was on maternity leave, but now that’s over and I need to get a bit more structure in my days. I do typically make a list of 3 things i Must Get Done each day, but don’t have a bigger list beyond that.

  2. Absolutely I have lists… and I have two lists for each week when I chat to my accountability partner – a personal and a business list.

    I try not to have more than about 10 things on my joint lists but I prefer around 7 – 8 in a week.

    These are things that crop up on the fly but definitely always include about 3 “big” goal-type items from my annual goals list.

  3. Nadia says:

    Hi Laura,
    I love this post precisely because it doesn’t present itself as being the “One True Path”. In contrast, I have recently read two books that undoubtedly believe they represent the “One True Path”: “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy and “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. While I found some helpful tips and ideas in these books, there was a big problem – reading them makes me feel like I have to follow their way, or I will be doomed.

    There are a number of similarities between this post and these books in regard to different types of lists that should be made. However, reading ETF and GTD make me feel exhausted before I even get started. In contrast, your list system is really about making sure that you have a rough map to your life at a few different levels. I think your system is much more relevant to my life because I know I do not do well when I don’t have some sort of plan, but I’m not interested in keeping the turbo-charged lists recommended by Tracy and Allen.

    I am not interested in following these intense and exclusive systems because I believe they fan the flames of my underlying Type A personality, something I am trying to tone down for my own sanity. I want to live a life that has goals and direction, while also giving me time to relax and stop to smell the roses if I want (mine smell beautiful at the moment! You’ve got to love renting a house with a beautiful garden with the maintenance included in the rent!)

    Reading these books, however, takes me back to a place before I ever tried meditating or letting unimportant things go. While these authors write about prioritizing, they still seem to imply that if only you were more organized you would be able to complete to-do lists containing every little detail that every flitted through your mind. In contrast, I found your post on “your cupboard not being a metaphor for your life” inspiring – I must say that I still squirm a bit when I look at mess or unopened/unsorted mail, but I know that if I choose to continue to care about all these little and time consuming details I will never meet my bigger, more life-affirming, goals.

  4. TG says:

    Good conversation by a bunch of professionals on how the work world has changed in the past few years in terms of less flexibility.

    http://thetotebag.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/the-way-work-gets-done/#comment-18899