Why Use a To-Do List?

todoWith the New Year underway, many of you are relying on your to-do lists to help you prioritize daily activities and reach long-term goals.

The rest of you might have sworn them off as a waste of time.

To-do lists carry disadvantages and pain points. They can set you up for frustration, induce guilt, discourage openness to unexpected opportunities, and take the fun out of important and otherwise enjoyable tasks. They might contain the wrong priorities – sidetracking you from real progress and accomplishment. When created thoughtlessly, they are hard to execute. When left unchecked, they just keep growing but never shorten or stabilize.

Moreover, the to-do list is just one tool among the many. You could use a calendar to get organized, manage tasks, and keep you on track. You could use a vision board or a life map to stay motivated and focused on long-term goals.

But before you burn your to-do list or decide that it’s not for you, first consider its core purpose, main features and unique benefits.

Purpose and Features

The to-do list is a simple list of prioritized tasks that you have to or want to perform, usually to meet certain goals and deadlines. It is best prepared daily, with the most important tasks or high-impact tasks at the top.

The list ought to be short because the hours in your day are finite. Once you begin your day, aim to cut the list and not expand it. If you end up adding items during the day, make sure they are important and urgent. And to make room for the new item, remove your least critical, pre-existing item from the list and do it tomorrow.

There’s no magic number of items to have on your list. But the more complicated and time-consuming the tasks, the shorter your list should be. Limit the list to one or two major activities that will get you closer to your big goals; the rest is gravy.

The to-do list is not the same as your someday/maybe list or your long-term projects list. It should contain actionable, specific tasks that you can reasonably complete on a given day. Projects like “build a website” do not belong. The list is for smaller, achievable tasks, such as “call web designer about logo.”

The list is also not a place to itemize your routines so you can give yourself a false sense of accomplishment. Do you really need to have tasks like “shower and shave” and “buy groceries” on the list?

Appointments, meetings, events, deadlines and time-sensitive errands go in your calendar, not on your to-do list.


To-do lists can help you in the following ways:

1. Increase your motivation

When you have long-term goals, you can use the list to break them down into actionable and achievable short-term steps. As you complete each step, you gain the momentum and confidence you need to finish the big project.

2. Get organized

Without a to-do list, you might find yourself winging it most of the time with no clear purpose. You spend your day in reactive mode, putting out fake fires and squandering your time on trivial matters.

Creating a to-do list, on the other hand, encourages you to reflect on your priorities, record due dates, strategize your action steps, and gather resources you need to complete the task.

3. Boost productivity

The list helps you stay focused on your highest priorities. You can use it to channel your attention on the present activity or task, instead of worrying about what you need to do next or what you might have forgotten. Fewer mental distractions will help you achieve flow, bolster creativity, and enhance output.

4. Remember important things you might forget

Some say you should be able to remember everything you have to do. They say if something is really important, it will keep coming back until you do it. But faced with limited short-term memory, busy lives, multiple distractions, and pure inattention, we often need external reminders to perform important tasks. The to-do list serves as a useful memory aid.

5. Reduce stress

The list can be a stress buster because it allows you to shed stuff from your mind. At the end of the day, you can put your unresolved issues on a to-do list for the next day (or perhaps a someday/maybe list). Chances are you will sleep better when you’re not obsessing over tasks possibly slipping through the cracks.

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Now that you know the advantages of to-do lists, you still need to create one that works. This means the list is relatively easy to execute and actually helps you get the right things done. The next blog post will provide tips on how to do just that.


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Photo by: Courtney Dirks