How to Make a To-do List you Love Instead of Hate!

If you struggle with creating a plan for your week ahead, I have some helpful tips that will guide you in the right direction of how to create the perfect to-do list so you don’t freak out and run screaming just at the sight of it.

How to organize using a list that is a tool to keep you on track without freaking out.

How to create the perfect to-do list

Let’s face it, to-do lists get a pretty bad rap. Just hearing someone say the words: “Let’s make a list” and the pushback hits along with a dose of frustration and resentment. It’s not the physical list that brings the negativity it’s the strong possibility of an unfinished list that does.

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But a to-do list is nothing more than your weekly plan. A tool that is meant to help you get through your days without overdoing it from too much work and projects and tasks.

But setting up a weekly game plan that is smooth and productive rather than overwhelming and frustrating, is something quite a few people struggle with. It seems we have more to do than there are hours in a day and because of that most of our to-do list gets lost in the shuffle of our homes never really going anywhere after they are written up.

woman writing up a to-do list for the week

The trick when creating a to-do list is to first make sure the list is absolutely complete. I know this sounds counterintuitive, however, knowing that everything is on that list allows you to relax because all of that mental clutter is now out of your head and finally down on paper.

However, this is only the first step, there are a few more you need to do when creating the perfect to-do list. One that, instead of running from, you use to create a schedule for the week ahead that is not only realistic but attainable too.

What is the best way to make a to-do list?

Before I give you that answer, let me tell you my story.

When I was a young mom of 4 very active little boys, I remember how I would look at my to-do list with pride. Crazy, I know, but seeing how many things were on my list wasn’t daunting, but more like a badge of honor. I would tell my friends just how crazy long my list was and how many things I needed to do and, in my head at least, that meant I was doing a great job as a wife and mother.


The funny thing is, the items on that list never got checked off. EVER.

It just sat there day after day until it finally got buried under random papers and mess, never to be heard from again. Back then, a to-do list was a sign of how busy I was and not a tool to help me be LESS busy. That thought never even occurred to me until many years later.

a messy kitchen counter with a to-do list buried under papers

Now I use my weekly list as a map for the next six days.

This list is my guide to keep me working smarter and, in turn, freeing up more time for family and friends. I wish I had these tips when I was a young mother because I know I would have had so much more energy at the end of each day.

How to Create the Perfect To-Do List

Remember, the word “perfect” is a bit tongue-in-cheek. You are not trying to reach a list of perfection, but rather you are working to create a list that is perfect for you. One that compliments your family’s lifestyle and your stage of life.

Step #1.  Get it All Down on Paper

I like to call this a brain dump, and it might be one of the most therapeutic things you will do today.

When I talk to people about clutter, we usually focus on their homes; little do they realize that our minds can get just as cluttered as our rooms.

We have so many thoughts, things we need to do, things to buy, things to make, problems, struggles, worries, and action items, all running around in our heads…all…the….time. And with all this noise, it can be hard to get a moment’s peace. The first step in creating the perfect to-do list is to get all those thoughts and ideas down onto paper.

This will be your master action list and your weekly starting point going forward.

How it works.

  • Start by gathering up a few supplies. You will need a notebook, along with a pen and a few highlighters.
  • Next, look for a spot in your home that is distraction-free. You want to be alone with your thoughts so you can do a thorough job.
  • Remember, to put everything down no matter how small it is, no matter how much you are sure you will remember to do it later on.

The trick to an effective brain dump is to write down everything. Pay no attention to the importance of the task. There are no items too small to write down. This means you may have things like “grab milk” and “do the laundry” mixed in with things like “set up my 401k at work”.

a to do list on a table outside with a cup of coffee

Step #2.  Do an Initial Sort

Now that you have everything written down on paper, you will need to go through each item removing anything that is not realistic. Next, transfer out any other items that do not belong. It’s true when you do a brain dump your list may seem a bit scattered, you may have a shopping list mixed in with chores, for example, but this is part of the process.

By getting all of that stuff out of your head and down onto paper you are giving those thoughts and ideas and shopping items all a voice. This, in turn, allows you to take a step back and actually look at what was cluttering around in your head.

But first, we need to streamline by removing items to a list of their own.

#1. Things to buy – Go through your list and transfer any items that belong on your shopping list. If you do not have a list started, you can do that now. I like to use a small spiral notebook for my shopping list. This will allow me to keep it in my purse, ensuring it is always with me whenever I am at a store.

#2. Errands – Next, go through and transfer any tasks that belong on your errand list. This can also be kept in your notebook mentioned in step number 1.

#3. Calls –  Go down your brain dump and look for any calls you listed and add that to your “call list.” Each week Tuesdays are when I make all of my calls. By having a designated day, I can relax knowing all our appointments and confirmation calls will be made on time. I keep my call list right on my calendar, and each Tuesday, I will go down that list, making all the calls needed.

#4. Remove what you can – Some of the things on your brain dump may be meant for another date in the future and some may even be unattainable. Those are items you can quickly remove.

A few examples might be: 

  • Add on an addition to your home.
  • Buy your dream car.
  • Pay off your mortgage.
  • Loose 25 pounds.

These are goals and not necessarily tasks, meaning they belong on a completely different type of list.

READ: How to Set Goals and Achieve Them

At this point, your list should begin to take shape.

Step #3. Prioritize What Is Left

Now, we are going to identify the tasks that are most important. The easiest way to do that is with a yellow highlighter. Work your way through your list and highlight anything that is a “this week” item. These things are at the top of your list, those items that need to be done within the next seven days.

woman checking her to-do list with her calendar

By singling out the top tasks you hope to work on NOW, you allow yourself to focus on what is truly important and turn your overwhelming list into an actionable one.

Step # 3. Estimate Your Time

This step is huge when it comes to planning tasks. Go back to each highlighted item and write down next to it the approximate time for how long it will take to complete it. Doing this will allow you to easily tuck these tasks into your schedule for the week ahead. 

Time estimating is huge and what I consider the foundation of creating a realistic schedule. No more setting impossible goals, or finding yourself stuck on the hamster wheel.

Happy woman writing a to do list in notepad using pencil

How it works:

If a task you have highlighted is estimated to take 2 hours, you will want to schedule it when you have two uninterrupted hours free or, at the very least, when you will have your family home to help.

If a task you have highlighted is estimated to take 10 minutes, you can more easily do this first thing in the morning before you dive into your day.

Step #4. Grab Your Weekly Calendar

Now that you know what items will get your attention this week and how long they will each take, we need to see what your schedule looks like. This is where your calendar comes in, whether that be your personal calendar, family calendar, work calendar, or a combination of all three.

My Favorite Calendars:

The key is to know how much time you have available each day so you can schedule tasks that allow you enough time to complete them.

a girl with a calendar open on a desk writing

So, for example, if you see that you have a major project due on Tuesday for work, you should not pencil in a major project on Monday, such as, “Bake 5 different kinds of cookies for this weekend’s picnic”.

Remember, your calendar, your to-do list, and even your smartphone are all meant to be tools to help you streamline your week so you are working smarter, not harder.

This all starts with a realistic plan each and every day.

#1. Gather your tools. You will need a pencil or colored pencils for this step.

#2. Go through your schedule day by day and block off time when you are able to work on tasks from your to-do list.

#3. Begin scheduling items that make sense to the amount of time you have available to work. If you only have 10 minutes, then scheduling appointments might be a great task to work on. If you have 45, working in your flower gardens might be a better fit.

Step #5.  Remember You!

When I first started creating and using my own to-do list, I continually made one mistake every time. I would completely skip penciling in time for me. Sure, you may think you will remember to grab a bite to eat, but when the day gets going, how many times do you look up at the clock and see it’s 2 p.m., and you haven’t come up for air yet.

By penciling in break times, you are allowing yourself to pace the day at a more realistic rate.

Remember, and I know I sound like a broken record, but your to-do list is there to help you be more productive without wasting time. Your to-do list is not there to control you, which takes away the joy of the day ahead.

Block off time to enjoy a tall glass of water and maybe a few minutes outside in the sunshine. Don’t forget to make time for lunch and some extra time to read a few pages in your favorite magazine or to take an energizing walk. Recharge and re-energize is an important part of our daily schedule and a major component of a day we can look back on with joy.

Step #6.  Revisit Each Morning

With the day-to-day outline of your weekly to-do list set up, it is important to finalize things each morning before you begin your day.

Schedules can change rather quickly, and because of that, I like to do a review before I begin the day ahead. Look over the schedule you have written down and make any adjustments as needed. Being so close to the start of the day, you should have a better idea of what is coming up, and you can then easily make adjustments by moving things around to make a more realistic game plan for the day ahead.

I like to do morning game plans before I dive into my day because it allows me to get myself centered and focused. I can see if my afternoon will be a bit hectic, allowing me to get mentally prepared for that time frame.

Step #7.  Follow Along

Once you have your to-do list set up for the week and you’ve revisited your schedule for that particular day, the rest is quite simple. Simply follow along. I like to check things off as I go so I can be sure that my progress is healthy and actionable.

D/M PRO TIP: Use a highlighter to check things off your to-do list. This will allow you to see still what the task was, just in case you need to go back later on.

Your daily calendar is almost like a journal. It allows you to see all the tasks you perform daily, giving you a great place to review how you’re living your life. Too much work and not enough play? That is a good sign that you may need to get in there and adjust your schedule to help you create a healthier one. 

Stop #8.  Rinse and Repeat

Each Sunday, I like to do my own weekly brain dump. A fresh new list that I can then use to compare to the one from the week before. This allows me to compare items on my new list with my old one.

I will usually transfer over anything that was unfinished or I was unable to get to from last week’s list to this week’s to be sure I have everything on there that needs my attention. I know this exercise sounds unnecessary, but by writing the tasks down, I can see what is getting pushed further and further back week by week.

When I see myself writing the same task down each Sunday, that is my way of telling myself it’s time to make it a high-action item and something that needs to be done in the upcoming week. This helps to keep up with those annoying tasks that we tend to put off until it is too late. I like to call these Back Burner Tasks.

Back Burner Task – Things that we consistently push to the back burner but know need to be done.

quote: Stop what you are doing right now and do one things that has been on your to-do list for months

Putting front and center those tasks that you have been pushing back will help you get them off your own list for good. And when you do, you will feel a sense of relief you must experience to truly enjoy.

Get it done, get it checked off the list, and feel that 10lb weight of guilt for not doing it earlier lift almost instantly.

Step #9.  Schedule Scheduling Time

Last but not least, we need to make sure that this task is on your list each and every week.

Planning is important and something you should have on your weekly schedule. And now that you have the exact steps, it should not be a time-consuming overwhelming project week after week. The first time you do this, it may take a bit longer than you plan, but as you find your footing and your own specific path, you may enjoy your weekly planning day.

table with a laptop, papers, baskets

After you are done, you feel accomplished and excited to get started checking things off. It feels good to know exactly what is coming up for the week ahead so you can work smarter and get more done in less time. Keep your focus on your list for the day ahead only so you can end the week successfully. 

Creating the perfect to-do list sometimes requires us to take a step back and evaluate what is on our list. This will help you pick out the most important, give an estimate of how long it will take to complete that task, pencil things out into your schedule where they fit the best, re-evaluate before we start the day, then diving and follow along is all you need to do to set up your own perfect to-do list. 

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  1. I have never been a scheduler, and I must admit that I am a procrastinator. Being a home-mom most of my adult life, I am still the person a child (my 4 our between 32 and 41 now) can call any time of day to talk to — especially if he/she is upset. This means an hour or more conversation every now and then. Summer can mean conversations with grandchildren too. I can see myself being frustrated that I could not do a chunk of my “to do” list now and then. Am I just extremely resistant to change?

  2. It feels defeating to me. Seems the list never gets done. At least if I don’t but it don’t I haven’t failed. Yet in my head I had a list and didn’t get thing done. But writing them down is like putting them in stone . My husband is the Master list maker and said he would miss important things if he didn’t . He said , “I live or die by that list “ . And I know the feel good feeling of marking things off of a list. With some minor surgery and a bran new puppy , everything is screaming my name.
    Feeling like a failure,

    1. I am so sorry you are feeling defeated but please be kind to yourself. As long as you get the basics done each done. Eat, dress, tidy up, work, you are doing amazingly well!
      Not everyone does well with a to-do list and if you hate them then do not use them. Life should be as stress-free as we can make it and if we are finding ourselves not feeling comfortable in our own homes we need to focus on that part first.
      Maybe instead of a to-do list, create a Fab Five list. This is A list of 5 things to do each day. A few ideas are:
      1. Pay the bills
      2. make dinner
      3. Read a book
      4. Make doctor appointments
      5. Take a shower

      be kind to yourself and create a plan that fits your home, your lifestyle, your daily schedule and YOU!

      Best wishes,
      Tracy Lynn

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