Using “to-do lists” has several advantages as a time-management technique. To-do lists in any format help you organize your priorities, enhance your productivity, and keep you on track. You are less likely to miss appointments, forget important tasks, or let small tasks slip through the cracks if you have a detailed to-do list.
A good to-do list can help you in a number of ways:
Plan for a variety of tasks, both academic and personal. Be sure to include academic tasks like attending class and studying, but also include personal tasks like laundry or grocery shopping.
Maintain realistic goals. If your to-do list is realistic, you can stay on track with your commitments. If you plan too much, you may feel overwhelmed and spend time procrastinating instead of accomplishing your goals.
Track your priorities. Steven Covey (known for his book 7Habits of Highly Effective People) argues that we should organize our time around our personal priorities. As you consider how to organize your own to-do list, think about the urgency and importance of each item you are considering listing. Items that have significant importance or which are close to the due date should be considered top priorities. Ask yourself, "What other criteria will I use to evaluate what is a top priority or not? How will I distinguish between top priorities and other items on my list?" By using a specific system (e.g., listing top priorities first or putting a symbol next to them) to establish and illustrate priorities, you can focus your attention and time on what matters most to you.
There are many ways to create a to-do list. Like a schedule, your to-do list should be accessible to you. A planner or a phone app often work well for students. Other systems might include a whiteboard or a series of sticky notes. The most important thing is finding a system that works effectively for you and that you can stick to throughout the term.
List clear priorities and due dates. Your list should help you choose what highly-important tasks should be completed prior to less-important tasks.
Divide large tasks or projects into small, manageable pieces. Put the smaller tasks on their own list. With a series of smaller tasks, you can make steady progress without feeling daunted or overwhelmed.
Cross things off your list. When you’re finished with something, cross it off your list! This gives you a sense of accomplishment, and the momentum of completing tasks will help you remain productive. Heath & Heath (2010) cite a study that concludes "people find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one." Those smaller tasks are an important part of accomplishing your larger goals!
Use small periods of time. All our schedules have small periods of time that open up. Instead of using that 10-30 minutes (or more) for browsing the internet or checking Facebook, consult your to-do list and see if you can get one or two of the smaller items done and crossed of your list.
Plan ahead with efficiency in mind. As you decide where and when to accomplish your tasks, look for places to increase efficiency. Are two tasks near each other? Can you study flashcards while standing in line for football tickets or at the grocery store?
Don’t worry if you don’t get everything done in the time you wanted to. Don't disregard those unfinished tasks; instead, evaluate them and plan to complete them. Remember that good schedules and lists are flexible and realistic. If you consistently need more time than you allotted for tasks, use that information to more accurately plan your next to-do list.