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.
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.
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.
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 first 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 instead, 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 killing it as a wife and mother.
The funny thing is, that list never really 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.
Now I use my weekly list as a map for the next 6 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
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 can.
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 of those thoughts and ideas down onto paper.
This will be your master action list and your weekly starting point going forward.
How it works.
Grab yourself a notebook, I have one just for my weekly lists, along with a pen or a pencil. Find a seat that is distraction-free like the kitchen table or a chair in your family room. Give yourself some time to work through the stuff that is rolling around in your head. Get comfy, grab a cup of your favorite drink and start writing. 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 this step working is to really write down everything. Pay no attention to the importance of the task. This means you may have things like “grab milk” and “do the laundry” mixed in with things like “set up my 401k at work”. There is no order here, just write it all down on paper no matter what it is or how unimportant you feel it is.
Step #2. Do an Initial Sort
Now that you have everything written down on paper we will need to go through each item removing anything that is not realistic and transfer out any other items that do not belong here. 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 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 your list just a bit.
- Things to buy – Go through your list and transfer any items that belong on your shopping list. Start a fresh list for the week if you do not have one yet and add on anything you listed that needs to be purchased. I like to have 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.
- Errands – While you are at it, you can start a separate section in your notebook just for errands. Keep this with your shopping list so, again, you remember to take action on these tasks.
- Calls – Go down your brain dump and look for any calls that you listed and add that to your “call list”. I have a day each week that I make all of my calls on, Tuesday. I keep my call list right on my calendar and each Tuesday I will go down that list, making all the calls needed.
- Remove what you can – Some of those things on your brain dump sheets may be meant for another date, some may even be unattainable, and those are items you can quickly remove. A few examples might be: stain the back deck this summer (when it’s still only February) or buy your dream car. When you remove these distractions you are able to realistically see what needs your attention now and what can wait until later. Go ahead and cross those items off.
Once you have done these first 4 steps, your list should begin to take shape.
Step #3. Prioritize What is Left
Next, with a yellow highlighter go through your list and highlight anything that is a “this week” item. These are the things that are at the top of your list, those items that need to be done within the next 7 days.
By singling out the top tasks you hope to work on 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 is Go back to each task on your list that is highlighted in yellow. With a pen, write down next to each item the approximate time for how long it will take to complete it. Doing this will allow you to more easily tuck these tasks into your schedule for the week ahead.
This is the foundation of creating a realistic schedule and gets you off the hamster wheel. No more setting impossible goals, now you know you will have the time needed to complete a task all the way to done.
How it works:
If a task you have highlighted is estimated to take 2 hours, you will most likely want to schedule it when you have 2 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, your family calendar, your work calendar, or a combination of all three.
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.
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 in a way so you are working smarter not harder. This all starts with a realistic plan each and every day.
Armed with a pencil (I love to use colored pencils so my blocks really stand out), go through your schedule day by day and block off time when you are able to work on things from your to-do list. 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, then 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 really 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, and in turn, takes away the joy of the day ahead.
Pencil in 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 actually 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 actually 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 is going to 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 yellow highlighter to check things off of your to-do list. This will allow you to still be able to see 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 that you perform day by day 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 a bit to help you create a healthier one.
Stop #8. Rinse and Repeat
Each Sunday is the day that 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 not able 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 like an unnecessary one, but by writing the tasks down I am more able to 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 really 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 we know need to be done.
Putting front and center those tasks that you have been pushing back will help you to get them off of your own list for good. And when you do, you will feel a sense of relief that you really 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 definitely 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 actually enjoy your weekly planning day.
After you are done you not only feel accomplished but excited to get started. 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 really evaluate what is on our list. This will help you pick out the most important, giving an estimate of how long it will take to complete that task, penciling things out into our schedule where they fit the best, re-evaluating before we start the day, then diving and simply following along is all you need to do to set up your own perfect to-do list.