How effective is your to-do list?


Lyn Lavery

Keeping a to-do list becomes a neccessity when juggling research along with other work and personal commitments. For many of us, however, our lists are viewed as a source of stress and overwhelm, with so many items on the list we fear they will never get done. This of course begs the question as to whether we should keep a to-do list at all, particularly in light of research that suggests 41% of to-do items never get done at all!

Despite this, there are some pretty compelling reasons to keep a to-do list. It’s well known that unfinished tasks take up precious brain space, but research suggests that making a plan to get them done will improve performance. There’s also some pretty good science behind the motivation we feel when we cross tasks off our list – each completed task provides a hit of dopamine, which gives us the fuel we need to cross additional items off the list. An effective to-do list also can improve your focus and concentration, and help ensure that you are working on your most important tasks. But what does an effective task list look like? Here are some suggestions:

How much is too much? Don’t crowd your daily to-do list with too many tasks – you’ll just feel overwhelmed and end up not achieving anything. Instead, aim to have one major task and a few medium-sized tasks each day, along with some quicker jobs that can be easily achieved (I call these my “quick wins”). One method for ensuring that you reduce the number of tasks on your daily to-do list is to keep multiple lists – I have a “daily”, “this week” and “back burner” list to help with this. Other people keep a master list of all their tasks and then move items from this onto their daily list. It doesn’t matter how you approach this – the key thing is to find a system that works for you.

What’s your priority? To-do lists ideally need to indicate priority – preferably, you’ll be prioritising tasks that are important to you, rather than reacting to urgent tasks. Urgency is important – if something has to be done by the end of the day and there will be consequences for not doing so, then it needs to be a priority. But there’s a definite difference between something that’s urgent and something that’s important. An important task is aligned with the goals that you’ve set yourself – these are the things that are important to you personally, so you need to spend time completing them as they will move you forward. If you’re worried about when you’ll be able to complete the urgent tasks, firstly assess how urgent they really are. They may appear urgent on the surface, but often tasks such as this can wait. Secondly, you may just find you have time for both – completing tasks that move you forward towards something that you value is incredibly energising.

Is it realistic? Ensure the tasks on your list can be realistically achieved, and when you’re considering how long a task will take, keep in mind that it will always take longer than you think it will! Also keep in mind that life likes to get in the way of completing our to-do list. If you’ve crammed your list with too many tasks, all of which will take a significant amount of time to complete, you’ll end up pretty stressed when your manager requests an urgent meeting or a student turns up at your office door desperately needing assistance. Allow time for these unexpected interruptions in your day when you’re planning your task list.

Pen and paper or app? Whether you decide to keep a pen and paper list or use an app is entirely a matter of personal preference. The key thing is that you have a single place to store all your tasks, rather than having some jotted on notes, some in your inbox, and some in a to-do app. I use Trello to keep track of my tasks. The advantages for me are that I can see multiple lists in a single place, easily add due dates and labels to indicate different types of tasks, and can move completed tasks into a “done” list so that I have a record of my achievements. I also like that I can access Trello on my mobile devices, so it’s convenient to add tasks to the list as they occur to me throughout my day.

Is it working for you? Constantly review your to-do list system to see if it’s working for you. If you’re not getting through your tasks each day – why not? Were you unrealistic about what could be achieved? Were you constantly distracted and unfocused? Was your day a constant stream of interruptions? Once you’ve identified the issue, make a plan for dealing with it.

Other quick tips:

  • Make sure your to-do list is simple – research is hard enough without over-complicating what you need to get done.
  • Don’t use your inbox as a task list – email is for communicating with others, not keeping track of what you need to do! If a task comes in via email that needs to be completed, do it straight away or move it onto your task list.
  • Aim to complete your main priority for each day first thing (or at least before lunch). This avoids you getting in a panic later in the day if something unexpected comes up. If you have a job where you tend to get constantly interrupted, go into work a little later in the day and aim to have your first priority complete before you leave the house.
  • Write your daily to-do list the night before – this should hopefully help you avoid worrying during the night about things that need to be done, and also means that you can get started as soon as you get to your desk the following day.

If you’re interested in learning more about productivity, you might like to consider joining our Research Accelerator membership. In addition to a range of courses on productivity, our members meet regularly for ‘Shut Up & Research’ sessions – these are a great opportunity to work through your to-do list with other researchers for accountability and company.