Checking off a to do list with a pencil on a rustic wood desk

We all have one… or at least we should.  A to do list.  Teeming with a dozen (sometimes more) things that we should do today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year.

No matter how you manage your to do list, there is a need to finding a balance.  If we are not careful, it becomes a sprawling outline of everything we have failed to accomplish in the last decade.

A to do list should be a joyful moment of our days.  I still proudly write my list down every week on paper.  Just to have the sheer joy of crossing off items. I get a high knowing that something has gotten completed.  That one stroke of the pencil makes it quite permanent (even though it might sneak back on in future weeks).

Like everything else, though, there is an art for maintaining your to do list so it’s a manageable and productive task.  If you are not careful with your list, it can become an overwhelming jumble of stuff.  When you create a list with tasks that are too long, not specific enough or unrealistic, it’s no longer a helpful tool.  Instead, the list becomes a burden that weighs on your daily sense of accomplishment.  You start to sense you aren’t moving forward toward a bigger goal.

Usually when my life is the busiest with family – such as summer vacation – is when I stop having a list altogether.  I feel like I muddle through my day without true purpose.  I convince myself that I’ll accomplish fewer goals during these times, so what’s the point of writing them down.

Not true!  A task is never too little to write down.  Even something you may consider inconsequential to your day – such as playing with the kids or taking a walk – is doing something.  And it’s in our human nature to need those accomplishments.

By getting stuff done every day – for my family and my business – I complete myself as a person.  Somewhere in my to do list I find happiness and purpose – something all of us need.

Writing a to do list in a journal on a wooden table with the text overlay "Finding Balance in your To Do List"

But in order to make your list work for you, you need to find a balance when writing it.  Here are some tips for writing a to do list that actually makes you feel accomplished and as if you are getting stuff done.

Understand your time frame

When writing your list, consider what kind of list it is.  Are writing down items to be accomplished for the day?  Week?  Month or even a year?  Are you writing down things you plan to accomplish, hope to accomplish or simply dream goals for the future?

The type of list you write will determine the kind of tasks you put on the list.  By understanding your time frame, you can choose tasks that can actually be accomplished.  You want to avoid selecting things that are too big so you have enough time to get them done.  You don’t want to be disappointed in the end.

Limit the number of items on your list

Before writing your list, set a maximum number of items.  Anyone can write a multi-page long to-do list, but it kind of defeats the purpose.  It’s better to choose the number of items that you can actually get done in the time frame selected.

When I write my list each week, I start by moving the items that didn’t get completed the previous week to the top of my new list.  Then I write the tasks I think I have time to complete.  I keep my list to eight to ten items depending on how big each task is.  If there are additional items for the list, I consider them overflow and move them to the following week.

Make sure they are things you are can actually do

There’s lots of things I want to accomplish each week.  Unfortunately, I do not always have the background knowledge or materials to get them all done.  These items shouldn’t be on my list.

When selecting the items for your to do list, make sure that they are actually tasks that you can get done in the time frame allotted.  Avoid choosing tasks that require a lot of research or prep work to accomplish.  If this is the case, put the research and prep work on the list first.  You can add the actual task in the weeks to come.

This recently happened to me when I was setting up our new shop website. Sadly, I know little about html, WordPress and Shopify.  Due to my lack of knowledge, the task remained undone for many weeks and just kept moving to my next list.  I finally had to admit that if I were to set up this website, I would also need to take some website classes and learn basic html.  As fun as this might be, these tasks would add more work, costs and time to my schedule.

Choose items for your to do list that you have the background knowledge to actually complete now – not down the road.  They’ll get done faster.

Write it down (on a real piece of paper)

Not everyone will agree with me on this one.  I know there are some tech gurus out there that can’t live without the apps on their phones.  I recommend, though, that you write down your to do list.

Although you can use an app, try a real piece of paper for a week.  There is amazing bliss that comes from crossing off an item when it’s finished.

I recently discovered someone who writes their entire to do list on the little page marker Post Its.  Each item is put on one of those little tabs and then stuck on the week’s pages of her agenda.  She then rips them off when she completes the task.  Supposedly, the process of removing a tab and throwing it away gives her such pleasure, her to dos became enjoyable again.

No matter what way you choose, be physical with your to do list.  They are something that you wrestle each week.

I find that using a pencil or pen makes that task more official.  If you prefer typing or dictating into your mobile device, that works too.  Just make sure that the list is accessible at all times.  That way if you accomplish a task, you can cross it off or click the check box immediately.  It’s all about that instant gratification.

Glance at it often

Sometimes maintaining to do lists can get tedious.  They can become that thing that you have to do, but don’t want to do.

I have found the times in my life I haven’t kept a list to be my most inefficient with time management.  I am a visual person and require that constant reminder of what I need to accomplish each day.

Review your list often during the period you write it for.  For a daily to do list, I look at it in the morning when I first start working and about midday.  That way I can see what I have gotten done and what I still need to so.  Then at the end of the day, I review it one more time.  At this point anything that hasn’t been completed gets moved onto the next day’s list.

Breaking large tasks into small action items

It’s important when writing your list, to be aware of tasks that are too large.  A huge task (such as creating a website or setting up your Etsy shop) requires smaller action items to actually accomplish it.

Break these large tasks into smaller to do list items.  Add the smaller action items to your list, not the large ones.  These smaller steps will eventually get you to accomplishing the bigger goal you set out to do.

Stack of rocks balancing on table with the text overlay "Ways to find balance in your to do list"

Reasonable expectations

Although your list will help keep you on task, it’s important to remember that life happens.  A child gets sick, someone has an unexpected school project and you forgot to take dinner out of the freezer.  Life happens every day whether we like it or not.

Part of running a business and having a family includes learning to balance everyone’s needs.  If you have a really unexpectedly busy day, move tasks over to the next day.  It’s okay.  They will still be there.

Celebrating your accomplishments

What’s life without some celebrations every now and then.  After completing your list tasks, don’t forget to celebrate.  Not every day, but when you accomplish a bigger task or you have a couple weeks of crossed off lists.  Be sure you take the time to give yourself a pat on the back.  You deserve it.

If you are having trouble getting into the habit of using a to do list, a special treat can also be a great incentive.  I wouldn’t use this lure all of the time, but it’s a great way to establish a list making routine.

Final Thoughts…

Writing a weekly to do list has been one of my success secrets since having kids.  It keeps me focused on the tasks I need to get done no matter how much chaos the week brings.

I write my weekly list on Sunday evenings after the kids are in bed.  It gives me space to think about the things that I actually want to accomplish during the week and steps that I need to take towards my goals.  I keep two lists – business tasks and family tasks.  Then, I choose items to work on each day from the lists.  This process keeps me focused and I feel pretty accomplished at the end of the week.

I recommend trying to write your own to do list this week.  Even if you find it flooded with more family tasks instead of business tasks.  After a week of crossing things off, see if you feel more accomplished.  My guess is that you will be well on your way to crafting your the new list for the following week.