To-do lists can be a great way to prioritize the tasks you need to accomplish, and to think about the time it'll take to do so.

As great as a to-do list can be, though, we don't all think about things in the same way, and what works for you in terms of prioritization, and how you proceed through your list, may not work for someone else. Before you embark on prioritizing your tasks, consider these three ways to think about it all, and then ask yourself which approach works best for you?

We encourage you to dig into the process and try them all out. You might find that there isn't one that works perfectly, and that's okay; learning what doesn't work for you is as powerful and important as learning what does! And then take some time to think about what pieces of each one resonate for you. Can you tie them together? Can you add that to the way that you think about prioritization?

Once you've tried out and decided on a system of prioritization that works for you, consider the following tips in your to-do-list practice, too. Making an effective to-do list can take time, and you'll want to be sure that you're able to follow through and act on the list. Try the following to help you do so:

  • 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. Remember the crossing things off your list? This is a great tactic for that! 
  • 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? Maybe read through notes while you’re on the bus? 
  • 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.

Want to learn more about effective list-making? Take a look at our quick to-do-list video, and check out our strategist, Alex, talking about how she prioritizes her to-do list. And if you want to talk more about any of this with someone, come and see us at the Academic Success Center: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM.

You don't need an appointment, you can drop in whenever it works in your schedule to do so. We talk about this stuff with students all the time, and we're working on our own to-do list process too. We'd love to sit down and chat with you about what's worked and what you want to get to work better. We can't wait for your visit!