The Best Tips to Creating a Basic To-Do List

How you enter a task on your to-do list makes a difference!

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #477

a simple to-do list

We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of the Get-it-Done Guy, and there’s so much to prepare: parties to throw, Oreo ice cream cake to be arranged, episodes to be planned, and zombie reanimation powder to be ordered. It’s clearly time for a list.

And as I pull out my handy dandy paper to-do list (as you can read about in the episode on using a paper to-do list), I realize...in ten years, we’ve explored some of the advanced ways of creating a to-do list, but we’ve never covered the basics. 

Today, that changes.

The Basic To-Do List: 6 Essential Ingredients

  1. Use complete sentences
  2. Make completion unambiguous
  3. Note due dates
  4. Pay attention to priorities
  5. Use the "Little and Often" approach
  6. Prune it. Then prune some more.

Let's dive further into each to-do list tip.

1. Use Complete Sentences

A to-do list is a list of tasks to do. And by “do,” I mean “take action.” As we all recall from 2nd grade grammar, where Mrs. Johnson used to terrify us into submission by threatening to conjugate our parts of speech, or dangle our participles out the window, action words are verbs, and verbs belong in a to-do list.

It’s tempting to jot down a to-do item that says, “zombie reanimation powder.” But then, when you get to that to-do item, you might not remember what you meant by that. Are you supposed to order more? Or get rid of the five-year-past-the-expiration date you have sitting on the shelf? Or maybe mix some up into a tasty smoothie to serve at funerals? The verb matters.

So don’t just write:

  • Anniversary party
  • Oreo ice cream cake
  • Episodes
  • Zombie reanimation powder

Make sure your tasks have verbs:

  • Throw anniversary party
  • Arrange Oreo ice cream cake
  • Plan episodes; and
  • Order zombie reanimation powder.

2. Make Completion Unambiguous

You’d think that “arrange Oreo ice cream cake” would be a great to-do item. It has a verb. It has a noun, and that noun is “Oreo ice cream cake.” What’s not to love?

What’s not to love is that “arrange” is too vague. Oreo ice cream cake can be ordered out. It can be prepared lovingly in your own ice cream maker. Even once it’s on the table, “arrange” might mean moving it so the light hits it just so. And is "arranging" something that happens once? Or do you have to monitor it, and keep making sure it’s presentable until the last, delectable slice is gone?

Choose verbs that are specific enough that you know when they’re done. “Order ice cream cake.” “Prepare ice cream cake from scratch.” “Place ice cream cake on serving table in good lighting.” Use verbs, and make sure you know when they’re complete.

Beware especially open-ended tasks like “research doomsday devices” or “think about cornering the world’s supply of thread.” You can research and think forever. Put some kind of limit in your task. “Research doomsday devices by watching Dr. Strangelove all the way to the end” or “Spend 15 minutes thinking about cornering the thread market.” While 15 minutes is an arbitrary number, if it’s not enough time, you can always add it back to the end of your list.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.