Abandoned to-do lists are something you might be familiar with. People are inherently bad at planning, but the right to-do list can bring clarity to what we need to get done, how to do it and keep us on our intended path. And for those of us who procrastinate, to-do lists can be exactly what we need to get to action.

The to-do list above belonged to Johnny Cash and it's a classic example of how not to write a to-do list. Instead, here are some simple tips and tricks on writing the perfect to-do list that keeps you getting things done. 

Use verbs, not nouns

If you think about it, the name "to-do" is itself a verb. So a to-do list should be made up of actionable items. That's why you should be starting them out with a verb. Instead of writing out a task that says 'bills', have a task that says 'pay the internet bill'. Using a verb will make it easier to take that action when the time comes. Writing the verb as a noun can make you forget what you actually have to do about that task.

Don't include the obvious

We're sometimes tempted to put every little thing we might do in a day on our to-do list, making us more likely to cross many, many items off the list. Really, you should only be putting down tasks that you wouldn't otherwise get around to, unless they're written down. Doing the laundry might be one of them, pee isn't. This is because when you're faced with two tasks that are given the same importance, your brain will always choose the simpler one. And if we'd put on our lists items like 'check email', 'eat', 'have coffee', etc. it would certainly look like we're getting a lot of stuff done, when in fact we're regally procrastinating.

Plan to do 5-7 tasks daily 

Break down your projects into bite-sized tasks, then make your goal to complete between 5 and 7 of those tasks daily. By not overwhelming yourself, you make it more likely to actually complete the items on the list. If you finish all those tasks, you can always get started on next day's.

Focus on one task at a time

Multitasking is taxing on our brains, because there is really no such thing as multitasking - it's simply our brain quickly switching between tasks. Multitasking can actually decrease productivity by 40%! An excellent tool for staying focused on one task is the Pomodoro technique, according to which you do 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5 minute break. Of course, some tasks require more concentration than just 25 minutes at a time, so make sure to customize it to your needs.


Decide when you are writing your list what are the most important items for the day - the tasks that you absolutely must get done. Start your day with these tasks to make sure that you get the big stuff out of the way. Methods like Kanban, the Eisenhower Matrix or a combination of both can help you better prioritize.

Check in throughout the day

Make sure you're staying on track throughout the day by checking in regularly. It's easy to get derailed throughout the day because so much happens. Have a positive bias toward the items on your list - they get your attention first. Just because something comes up, it doesn't mean that it's more important than what you've already set out to do today.

Be flexible

Sometimes deviations from the list are ok. It's important to stay flexible and respond to change as it happens around you. Things come up that we need to attend to right away, especially when it comes to things that are out of our control, like a customer request. But don't confuse being flexible with getting distracted from your to-do! 

Keep a record of completed tasks

It's good to revel in how much you did today, or keep yourself honest about how little you got done. Either way, it's a good idea to keep a record of what you did. It can help you improve your practices and become more efficient, or simply allow you to be proud of all that you've accomplished.

Find your sweet spot

As with every piece of advice, it's up to you to make it work for your needs. This requires a lot of introspection and experimenting with different methods to find out what really works for you. But when yo do find out what works for you, I can assure you that your productivity will just go through the roof!

What are the tips that have worked for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.