The Power of To-Do Lists

Mohammed Islam
5 min readDec 7, 2020

Recently, I’ve begun making checklists of tasks, goals, recurring activities I want to do throughout the day/week/month/year. These are some lessons from my experiences to date.

1. Getting Started

I had a difficult time compiling a to-do list the first time I started writing one. I thought about appropriate tasks, activities, and goals to put on the list and very few came to mind. I hesitated to write things like “wake up early” or “eat three proper meals” because I thought those were too dull and no sense of accomplishment would come from them. After some thought, I put them on my list anyways and I do not regret it one bit. This was my first lesson: there’s nothing too small or too big, too specific or too mundane to go on these personalized lists.

2. Categorization

As I dove deeper and deeper into my world of wacky lists, I began to categorize them: recurring, immediate, short-term, and long-term.

My recurring tasks were daily tasks I wanted to do, be it taking a short walk outside, spend some time playing video games, or read something I enjoy. The immediate tasks included assignments from work, school, business, and miscellaneous errands. Short-term goals included things like resume review, revamping my LinkedIn, etc. Long-term goals included goals I wanted completed in 6 months to a year and everything in between.

At first glance these goals seemed irrelevant to one another, however, I realized how dependent they actually were. The recurring goals provided me the encouragement I needed to get my immediate tasks done more confidently. The immediate tasks were smaller chunks of my short-term goals and finally, those short-term goals were my stepping stones to completing my long-term goals. For example, if a long term goal was to get a new job, resume building and revamping LinkedIn (short-term goals) were fundamental steps in achieving my long-term goal. Even when goals weren’t directly interconnected, completion of one provided encouragement to begin the next.

It’s easy to get lost when goals/tasks aren’t categorized; the prioritization process becomes tedious and tiresome. See next section for more on prioritization.

3. Prioritization

Prioritization varied depending on a multitude of factors. Some weeks I found myself prioritizing seemingly mundane tasks like waking up early while other weeks my assignments took priority. Prioritization helped me determine which tasks could be pushed off to a backlog and which tasks needed to be added to my main list from the backlog. I had to prioritize based on what took precedence that specific day/week. If my mental health was lacking, I saw myself prioritizing random walks and time to myself while an assignment heavy week demanded prioritization of those deadlines and less time for recreational activities (all the while keeping some time for recreational activities).

However, I did spiral into a dangerous mind trap: if I was not prioritizing those things that produced tangible results, I was not being productive. Productivity is not all about seeing results on pen and paper, sanity and well-being is a thing of productivity too.

4. Satisfaction Through Effort

In the beginning, my lists were nothing but chicken scratch on paper. Although a good start, I found myself misplacing and throwing them out. I learned that like most things in life, the more effort I put into the process, the more eccentric (dare I say colorful) these lists were, the more attention they received.

I began color coding and adding snippets of art onto my lists. Long story short, I started setting aside about 1 hour on average making them and I found myself taking care of both the lists and the tasks on them.

The human psyche is quite the interesting entity. I could feel the growing sense of accomplishment as I checked items off my list. The feel-good neurons in my head were firing left and right; I felt more motivated to do the next task after having completed one. I prioritized the hardest tasks earlier on in the day as that’s when I had the most energy and this provided the mental strength and enthusiasm to tackle the less daunting tasks throughout the day/week (this is a general recommendation by highly productive people). Checking off something as mundane as “wake up at 8 AM” fueled my energy to do the next task. Once I checked one item off the list, the game was afoot. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea; the trick was understanding my modus operandi and the key to understanding that was trial and error.

5. The Reality of Burnout

All the above aside for a moment, I needed to keep myself in check. Burnout is real and I felt it when I overexerted myself during certain weeks. I did not realize the importance of those short walks, playing video games, or hanging out with friends until I started tiring myself out as a result of my overexertion. It’s important to strike healthy balances and it took me a month or so to get the hang of this balancing act.

Setting goals is important but stressing myself with strict timelines was something I had to unlearn (re: I am still unlearning). The whole point of these lists was to help myself control stress levels and if more stress is what they led to, I was not doing it right. I had to learn to break some tasks down into smaller tasks and give myself ample number of breaks (re: well-deserved breaks) in between so that I was always refreshed and attentive.

6. Review and Repeat

Revision became an important part of this process for me. I took one day out of the week to review my lists. These review sessions became crucial to understanding my velocity. Velocity in project management is the quantified amount of work one can get done during a set period of time. After understanding my own velocity, I was able to revise my schedules more accurately and compile more bearable workloads. Even then, some weeks would prove to be slower than others and convincing myself that that is alright was important. I created a backlog of things that I can push off and during slower periods of time, I moved some tasks from the backlog into my to-do’s. This allowed me to prioritize and focus on what I needed to work on immediately while being at ease about those not-so-immediate tasks.

Experiences will be unique depending on the person, but I found the framework to be universally relevant.

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