7 small things you can do to improve your to-do list : Life Kit Is your to-do list helping you reach your goals? Or is it holding you back? Productivity experts explain how to level up your list so it prioritizes what matters.

7 tiny hacks that can improve your to-do list

7 tiny hacks that can improve your to-do list

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1145019667/1147036027" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A flat lay photograph of different types of to do lists is photographed from above. Including a planner with time boxing, a to do list in a spiral notebook, a to do list app on a phone and post it notes. The types of to do lists are laid on a background of colorful squares in yellow, fuchsia and yellow.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

When I looked at my to-do list recently, I noticed that it was kind of all over the place.

☐ Make allergist appointment

☐ Buy razors

☐ Retile kitchen floor

☐ Throw out compost!!!

☐ Figure out meal prepping

It's hard to tell which tasks are a priority. Some are urgent and some can wait. Some are quick to complete, others take more time.

Is there a more effective way to write my to-do list? On this episode of Life Kit, I talk to time management experts about how to create action items that are clear, short and doable. Here are 7 surprising and useful tips.

1. Follow the two-minute rule. "If it takes less than two minutes, just do it right then and there," says Angel Trinidad, founder and CEO of Passion Planner, a company that sells paper and digital planners and journals. "It's not worth the bandwidth to write it down, remember it and do it."

2. Automate what you can. If you find yourself writing "buy more dog food" on your to-do list every few weeks, save yourself the effort of adding it to your to-do list by signing up for a subscription to get the food delivered to your house each month. That can leave space on your list for more important tasks.

3. Break each task into smaller chunks. People aren't specific enough when they write down items on their to-do lists, says Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. And what ends up happening, he adds, is that "we don't get them done because we're not expressing them in a doable form."

For example, I want to retile my kitchen floor. Burkeman says that's not a to-do list item because there are too many steps packed into one big goal. Instead, he suggests I should break the project into smaller action items like "call hardware store for an estimate" or "pick out tile."

4. Decide what's a priority. Burkeman has a trick for deciding what's important: Take one of your existing to-do list tasks and ask "why" repeatedly — at least five times, he says. For example, why do I want to retile my kitchen floor? To make my apartment look better. Why? Because a beautiful space makes me feel more at peace.

"Eventually you get to something that feels like a bedrock value of your life," Burkeman says. "And if you don't, maybe that's a sign that it's a kind of a zombie project that could be easily abandoned."

Narrowing down on a few big priorities can help you actually accomplish what's on your to do list. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Narrowing down on a few big priorities can help you actually accomplish what's on your to do list.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

5. Figure out whether you want to write your to-do list on paper or digitally. Paper can be great because there are only so many tasks you can fit onto a page, says Trinidad. So if you're the kind of person who gets overwhelmed by too many things on your to-do list, the limited space of a piece of paper, a notebook or a physical planner can help you narrow down your priorities.

On the other hand, keeping your to-do list on digital planners like Asana, ToDoist and Trello, or even the notes app on your smartphone, has benefits. You don't have to worry about losing the physical copy of it. They're searchable, says Trinidad — handy when you're looking for a task you may have forgotten. And you can also reorganize and move tasks around easily.

6. Try assigning a task to a time of day. Take a look at your daily schedule and figure out when you can get your tasks done.

For example, you might write your novel from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., grocery shop from 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. and drop off your dry cleaning from 3:30-4 p.m. This method, called time boxing, can narrow down how much you can tackle in a day. "That kind of awareness gets you thinking, am I spending my time in a way that makes sense for me?" says Trinidad.

7. Include big life goals on your to-do list. Your to-do list isn't just for mundane, everyday tasks like sending email and doing laundry. You can also use it to reach your big-picture goals. Ask yourself: "Who do I want to be? What do I want to experience? What do I want to have?" says Trinidad.

If you want to be more present in your body, you might set a goal to run a 5K by the end of the year. If you want to give back to your community, you might volunteer once a week. When adding these goals to your to-do list, don't forget to break them up into smaller, doable tasks.

More great tips from NPR on productivity and time management

Rethink your relationship with time. Assuming you live to age 80, you have just 4,000 weeks to live. While that may be a brutal dose of reality, it's also an opportunity to think about how you're spending that time, says Burkeman.

How to fight procrastination. Procrastination isn't a sign of laziness – it's your inner critic coming to life, says therapist Anastasia Locklin. She shares 5 simple tips on how to kick the habit.

Improve your focus. Some experts say the key to focusing isn't forcing yourself to work but taking strategic breaks to let your mind and body wonder. Here are 6 ways to improve your concentration.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Alex Drewenskus. It was edited by Sylvie Douglas. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or sign up for our newsletter.