The Right Way To Make A To-Do List

I’ve been following Laura Vanderkam’s work ever since I read her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, which introduced me to the idea that my time was a resource, like money, and I could choose how I spent it.

She writes mainly about time and productivity, but with a gorgeous command of language and solid journalistic sense of story that draws you in, unlike many “productivity gurus” out there.

In her book, What the Most Successful People Do at Work, Vanderkam takes years of interviews with successful CEOs and entrepreneurs and draws out lessons on how they achieve amazing things in their work and life – even though they’re faced with the same distractions the rest of us are, and have the same number of hours in their weeks.

It’s a short book, and definitely worth an hour or so of your precious time to read. The principles Vanderkam outlines are deceptively simple:

The Seven Principles of Astonishing Productivity

  • 1. Mind Your Hours: Track your time so you understand what you’re spending it on.
  • 2. Plan: Budget your time wisely by planning ahead.
  • 3. Make Success Possible: Schedule yourself – and your to-do list – realistically.
  • 4. Know What Is Work: Understand which activities further your goals, and which simply look like work.
  • 5. Practice: Keep constantly improving your skills.
  • 6. Pay In: Take time to nurture relationships, log achievements, and otherwise pay into your bank of career capital.
  • 7. Pursue Pleasure: Seek out the joy in your work, and find ways to spend more time in those activities.

The section that really caught my attention this time around was the principle of Make Success Possible. In the past, my to-do lists have been monstrous, panic-inducing documents – sometimes complete with indexes and section headings. The idea of completing everything on a list was laughable.

But Vanderkam writes, “Successful people tend to view their primary to-do lists a bit differently than others do. They aren’t just lists. They’re more like contracts. Whatever is on the list will get done, often as a matter of personal pride.”

The right way to make a to-do list

For the successful people Vanderkam interviews, the daily to-do list is a tool for identifying priorities and moving your goals forward, not a tool to cause guilt and overwhelm.

That to-do list as long as your arm? It’s not helping you out. Instead, Vanderkam writes, we should be thinking in terms of a priority list.

Vanderkam interviewed TurboJam creator Charlene Johnson about her productivity habits, and found that she only allows six items on her list each day: three things that absolutely must be done, and three small steps toward her overall goals for the year.

By limiting our focus to three things that must get done, we gain more clarity about our day. Sure, other things will pop up (Call the doctor! Pick up flowers for mother’s day!), but understanding what three things must be accomplished helps you focus on what’s most important to your goals instead of getting set adrift in a sea of non-essential to-do list tasks.

I’m trying it this week.

On Monday, I checked off all the items on my priority list by the afternoon, which was an odd feeling. Let me rephrase: it was a triumphant feeling, actually, like I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. Having met all my priorities for the day, I chose another few and had the satisfaction of crossing those off the list, too.

I started Tuesday with a clean slate, rather than being faced an avalanche of Monday’s unfinished tasks. I set my three priorities based on upcoming deadlines, and managed to meet them all even while taking on a few hours’ emergency work for a client.

My favorite thing about Charlene Johnson’s system is that she also includes three small steps towards her yearly goal – things like sending an email or making a phone call. Johnson tells Vanderkam, “The reasoning behind limiting, editing your list to fewer items is you never feel defeated. You got everything done that had to get done. Most people think they have to sprint and that’s why they never hit their big push goals—because they run out of steam.”

Vanderkam notes that, “Doing three things per day in pursuit of a big goal may not seem like much, but doing three things every work day without fail could put you 750 steps closer to your goal in a year.”

What goal could you reach this year by taking 750 small steps? Start your own business? Launch a non-profit? Write a book?

Let us know in the comments!

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Love this overall topic and the BIG question for me..
How do you implement your list – pen/paper or digital/mobile app?
What apps work best for you for the list.

The running laundry list in my mind each and every day is mind-numbing. capturing that and then culling it down to 3 key actions a day is the challenge.

Jessie Kwak

Chris–I hear you! I’d recommend looking into David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. He’s written a book, but you can fin the gist of it by googling. (I’m on my phone or I’d hunt down a link for you.)

The main thing to take away from his method is that your brain isn’t a great place to hold everything–he recommends writing *everything* down.

My system is that I have a “Brain Dump” file in Evernote, where I jot down very thing that comes to mind throughout the day, no matter how insignificant. I review it regularly and siphon things off into several different Evernote files: “This Week,” “Next Weeks,” “This Year,” and “Someday.”

My “This Week” file is divided into days, so I can easily list meetings, deadlines, and to-dos and see them at a glance.

I’ve refined the system over the past couple years, and this works really well for me. I’ll post a link to a public Evernote folder with those files once I’m on my regular computer, so you can see what I mean.


Very good ideas. I like the fact that you are always working towards a bigger goal, a little each day.
One of the things that has helped me is to mark out 20 minutes each day to work on one long term goal/project. At the end of the twenty minutes, I am done until the next day, and can set it aside without the guilt that I didn’t get more done.