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Simple Tips & Tweaks for Creating a Productive To-Do List

to do listI love lists. And I make many of them. I make lists of my daily tasks. I make lists of the articles I need to write each month — both in a Word doc and in a separate notebook. I make lists in most of my blog posts. I make lists for different projects. I make lists for the grocery store. I make lists of the bills I need to pay and write down when I’ve paid them. I make lists of books I’d like to read. I probably make lots of other lists that simply aren’t coming to mind right now.

With my penchant for listmaking, it seems I’ve found a kindred spirit in Paula Rizzo, the founder of and author of the new book Listful Thinking: Using Lists to be More Productive, Highly Successful, and Less Stressed.

Rizzo, a television producer in New York City, also loves lists and relies on them to navigate her busy days. She keeps comprehensive lists for work and home commitments. She’s created detailed lists for everything from apartment hunting in Manhattan to destination wedding packing for Puerto Rico.

According to Rizzo, lists are powerful because they reduce our anxiety, keep us focused, let us organize our thoughts, get us prepared, and empower us to feel like active participants in our lives.

Lists can even boost our brain power. In this post on Rizzo’s blog, memory expert Cynthia Green, Ph.D, writes: “Memory tools, such as list making, force us to pay closer attention to the information we need to remember, and they give that information meaning by placing it in an organizational scheme.”

Good lists, Rizzo writes, “should serve as a roadmap and a place from which to springboard your actions.” This is where to-do lists come in.

But, sometimes, our lists can overwhelm us. Here’s a list (how appropriate!) of helpful tips from Listful Thinking on creating to-do lists that work:

  • Write down everything you need to do. Don’t worry about the order; just write tasks down as you think of them (since you’ll be organizing them shortly).
  • Divide the tasks into different categories, such as work, home and kids.
  • Review each list, and rank order the tasks by deadline or importance. Ask yourself questions, such as: Does this task really need to get done now? What can I save for another time?
  • Rewrite your list. A clean list is easier to read and increases your chances of actually using it
  • Make specific lists for projects with multiple steps. For instance, instead of writing “organize the garage,” include bullet points, such as “get rid of extra holiday decorations,” and “clear clutter where the car should be parked.”
  • Use specific action words. Instead of “go to grocery store,” write, “pick up salad, tomatoes and avocados.”
  • Leave a space on your list for “place holders.” Rizzo sets aside a spot in the lower left-hand corner of her notebook for making quick notes any time she’s interrupted. She simply writes what she was doing so she can return to it when she has time (instead of forgetting, which can easily happen when you’re interrupted).

In addition to creating to-do lists, you can use lists in all sorts of ways. For instance, you can create a pros and cons list to help you make wise decisions; a detailed packing list for an upcoming vacation (where you plan out your activities, and then your outfits); a list of topics you need to research, such as how to budget better; a list of places to visit or restaurants to try; and a list of your dreams, which might include everything from tasting crepes in Paris to publishing a book of poetry.

The key in creating productive lists is knowing yourself. Experiment with different techniques, and then stick to what works best for you.

Simple Tips & Tweaks for Creating a Productive To-Do List

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Simple Tips & Tweaks for Creating a Productive To-Do List. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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