Many of us use Todo Lists. Some of us have more than one. Nearly all of us use them poorly. The question is – are Todo Lists amazing or are they useless? The short answer is that it depends.

What you will learn…

  1. What a Todo List is
  2. Where Todo Lists are valuable and where are they not
  3. The best way to create and use a Todo List

Todo Lists have existed for as long as people have written things down. For as long as we have had more things that we needed to do than we could easily remember. And even though there are lots of tools that exist to help, they are really variations on the simple paper approach to writing down a list and checking off items as you complete them.

So why write about this if it has been around for such a long time? Because most people struggle with how to best manage the things that they need to do. And how to best use tools to help them!

I am not perfect in how I use Todo Lists. But I think I am pretty good. I have learned a lot along the way and wanted to share what works and what does not.

How to Use Todo Lists

Todo Lists are a way to help you keep track of the things that you need (or want) to get done. Here is how I recommend that you use Todo Lists.

  • Create multiple lists. LT vs ST and Home vs Work.
  • Use Todo Lists only for reasonably simple tasks. Use a project management tool for things that are large. I recommend a Todo List for tasks that will not take more than a couple of hours.
  • Reorder your list on a regular basis, making sure that the most important tasks are at the top. Note that sometimes the most important is actually the most urgent.
  • Associate an expected duration with your tasks. You can be pretty flexible here in terms of how you do this. But you will need to understand how long things are likely to take so that you can effectively schedule your time.
  • Where needed, associate a due date with your tasks.
  • Keep your Todo List manageable. I would recommend no more than 10 items. If you have more, keep track on a separate list (short-term vs long-term).
  • Plan your day the night before. This includes making sure that you have scheduled (yes, on your calendar) time for the most important items on your Todo List. My approach is to add the todo list items directly into my calendar appointment. You might need to reorder your list as a part of this.
  • Remember to use the morning for the creative items.
  • During your scheduled time, glance back at your Todo List, put your head down, and nail tasks from your list. If you didn’t get done what you expected, make sure that you add time to your calendar to complete any required tasks.
  • Enjoy the process of checking items off the list!

Common Mistakes People Make

I have described above how to use Todo Lists effectively. Here are some common mistakes to avoid.

  1. Doing the tasks that are less important (maybe more fun).
  2. Using their calendar to track and manage tasks. Mail can be a time sync. You need to schedule time to deal with email. If you do not keep email and Todo Lists separate, you will be in email all of the time. You will end up wasting time on email when you need to be completing your tasks.
  3. Creating tasks that are too big. For tasks that are bigger than a couple of hours, you need to break them down. You can do this by creating a few Todo List tasks. Or you can use a project management tool.
  4. Creating Todo Lists that are too long. It is demotivating to see too many items on your Todo List.

Tools, Tools, and More Tools

The first thing that I will say about tools (or more frequently apps) is that it is not about the tool. It is about how you use the tool!

The second thing that I will say is that you have to be really clear in terms of what you are looking for. Many of the tools encroach on project management. If that is what you are looking for, and I do think they are valuable, then start there. Don’t start with a todo tool and hope that it can also handle projects (there are some good simple project management tools that are worth looking at – such as Basecamp and Trello).

But if what you are looking for is good Todo Lists, here are some options.

  • Wunderlist – is free and simple, shares across and runs on multiple platforms, makes it easy to create lots of lists including subtasks, provides reminders, and allows for sharing with other people. I used this before Microsoft purchased them. I have seen only positive changes since.
  • Ticktick – the free version looks to be simple yet comprehensive, sharing and running across lots of platforms, allowing for multiple lists, and breaking them down into tasks. There are some pretty current capabilities like location-based reminders. There is a premium version with some nice capabilities as well. I have not used Ticktick but it has really good reviews.
  • OmniFocus – is not free (it can actually be expensive when you run it on multiple platforms), but looks to be the most comprehensive, especially when it comes to views or what they call perspectives. The capabilities do start to encroach on project management. OmniFocus gets good reviews.
  • Remember the Milk – has a free version but many of the features you need are in the pro version. It is a bit of a cross between Todo List and reminders. It looks to integrate well with other tools that you already have, such as Google Drive, Evernote, and Gmail. I have seen a lot of positive reviews.
  • Toodledo – is free. It takes a bit of a different approach than the others, focusing on helping you with data around your Todo Lists.  You can link files, create outlines, and create other attributes of your item. It also provides a calendar view. I decided based on the features. There is a learning curve to using Toodledo.
  • Paper – Yes, that’s right, paper. There is something valuable about writing things down that keeps them more current in your mind. It is also more socially acceptable in some cases to cross items off or add new items to paper rather than pulling out your phone. Is there really a difference in your attention and focus? No. But being on your phone still has negative connotations.

I personally use a combination of making my list on a sheet of paper and using Wunderlist. I use paper for things that are short-term. I create a work and home Todo List. I use it daily and rewrite (and reorder) it at least a couple of times a week. Some of the items that I add come from the longer-term lists.

I use Wunderlist for my longer-term lists, things that are further out. I have one for work and a couple for home. I add items as they come up. I check these maybe weekly and reorder typically when I look at them.

See Also

Rethink How To Prioritize

Stop the Email Madness

Spend Time on the Right Things – A Super Effective Tool

Categories: TimeTools


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