Is writing your daily to-do list leaving you feeling more overwhelmed than organised? While it can be tempting to include every task you can possibly think of, a simpler to-do list can actually help you achieve more. I’m sharing some ways to write a more focused, simpler to-do list that will see you stay on-purpose, and nail your to-do’s, every day. I have created a printable worksheet to help you work through the techniques (there’s one to fit your A5 planner too!) Access the Worksheet from my free Planner Lovers Resource Library.
1. Start with a brain dump
The first step to writing a simpler to-do list is to clear the clutter.
And I don’t mean from your wardrobe!
Our minds are often abuzz with thoughts about the future, worries from the past, things we need to do, and things we think we need to do. All of these thoughts can get in the way of making clear, intentional, decisions.
If you haven’t tried ‘brain dumping’ it’s a simple, effective, way to clear the mind of all those excess thoughts and worries. ‘Dumping’ them onto paper allows the brain to get on with what it needs to do, without hindrance. You’ll be able to think more clearly and focus on what is important.
Here’s how to perform a brain dump for a simpler to-do list:
Take a sheet of paper, or your notebook, and a pen. For 5 to 10 minutes just write down everything that comes to your mind. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry if most of what you write seems like junk. Just let it all spill out. You might find yourself writing down chores you need to do, things you need to remember, something cute your child said, a book you want to read, scheduled appointments, something you’re worried about or possible solutions to a problem.
As you write, use lines and arrows to join up any related items. Underline or highlight anything that is important or a priority.
It’s ok to be messy and to write all over the page!
Now that it’s all out, doesn’t it feel better? You’ve created some much-needed space in your mind, and given your brain a chance to process and organise all this information. Whew!
You now have a clearer picture of what needs to be dealt with today, and what can actually be forgotten. Use this clarity to simplify your to-do list, adding only what is important today.
(I wrote another post about the brain dump, read it here.)
2. Have a purpose for the day
Now that you’ve emptied your mind and got some clarity, and you’re feeling a little less overwhelmed, it’s time to check in with your values. Your values are the ideas and beliefs that matter most to you, such as family happiness, health, generosity, wealth or achievement. Connecting with your values as you write your list of daily tasks will help you to infuse your day with purpose and passion.
Every morning, ask yourself this: “For my day to be well-lived, what do I need to achieve?”
Considering your day’s purpose each morning, before you tackle your to-do list or start work, helps you set off on the right foot. You’ll know where you’re heading and what actions will help you get there. Write your purpose down on a sticky note or inside your planner.
Now, only place tasks on today’s to-do list if completing them will move you in the direction of your day’s purpose.
Keep your purpose at the front of your mind as you write your tasks, and make decisions throughout the day. By staying on-purpose you’ll reach the end of each day less overwhelmed and with a much greater sense of achievement.
3. Top three
Long to-do lists leave us anxious and overwhelmed so let’s say goodbye to them for good!
In her book, Destination Simple, author Brooke McAlary recommends adding only your three most pressing tasks to your to-do list. Brooke writes, “…with three items, our goals are achievable – on all but the worst days; our goals are actionable – the list is not overwhelming; our goals are simple – you won’t lose track of what you’re working on.”
Return to your brain dump when deciding on your top three tasks. Can you recognise any recurring patterns, urgent problems or tasks that need doing? What could you do today to resolve those? Choose your top three tasks and write them down in your notebook or planner.
It’s ok to add other, secondary, tasks to your list, but no more than five or six. Make sure you complete your top three before moving on to any secondary tasks.
With a list this simple and focused you’ll be nailing your to-do’s every day! #heckyes
4. Separate tasks from regular daily ‘habits’
We all have habits that we perform daily, almost without thinking, such as brushing our teeth, making coffee, putting the laundry on, cooking dinner or packing the dishwasher. These daily occurrences happen regardless of whether or not they’re on our to-do list.
If you’re filling your to-do lists with regular daily habits, stop now!
Sure, it can be tempting to add ‘make the bed’ and ‘coffee’ to your to-do list, if only for the satisfaction of ticking them off. But this only complicates your to-do’s, making your list long and overwhelming, leaving less opportunity to focus on the ‘big’ stuff.
So, keep your to-do list for only your most purposeful and important tasks.
5. Write it down
Next time you can’t resist that super cute to-do list, or notepad, from your favourite stationery store, rest assured it’s helping you get stuff done! (Ok, any type of paper will do, but a cute notepad is more fun 😉 )
Studies show that we are actually more likely to remember tasks if we write them down, with pen and paper, rather than type them on a laptop. As we think through our tasks, and write them down, the brain is able to summarise and comprehend the information better. Plus, there’s less distraction when using pen and paper – no Facebook, email or Google to tempt us away!
So, for a to-do list that you’re more likely to remember and complete, stick with good old-fashioned pen and paper.
(Cute notepaper lover? Check out the printable below…)
6. Use a system
Don’t stop at writing down your to-do’s, organise them with a simple system. You’ll be SO much more productive, I promise.
Firstly, keep your to-do’s in a designated section in your planner, or inside a journal or notebook. Avoid keeping sticky notes all over your office, and leaving your to-do’s on scraps of paper – they’ll just get lost. If you are using sticky notes, keep them inside your planner. Any lists that have been written on loose sheets of notepaper can be attached to your planner or notebook pages using Washi tape.
Next, use different symbols to indicate open tasks, priorities, events or completed tasks. By presenting your tasks in a more organised way you can see exactly what you’ve got going on, at a glance.
Finally, review your list at the end of every day. Check off tasks that have been completed, and cross out those that are no longer important. Move any incomplete tasks over to the next day’s to-do list.
To learn more about managing your to-do list with a system, read this post about bullet journaling.
Download a free Worksheet
Simplifying your to-do list is really about knowing where to focus your attention. I use the above techniques every day and my to-do lists are simple, focused and on purpose. Choose your favourite technique from above and implement it now! Or use all of these suggestions together to really simplify your to-do lists, reduce overwhelm and stay focused. I’ve created a worksheet to help you remember the steps to writing a simpler to-do list. There’s a space to complete your brain dump, consider your values and purpose and list your top three priorities.
Remember to keep checking off and reviewing your completed to-do’s – celebrating what you have already achieved is the best way to stay motivated!
Access my free Planner Lovers Resource Library and download your Simpler To-Do List Worksheet and A5 Planner Insert.