To Do: Make a Better, Smarter To-Do List

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple magazine, shared her tips for how to write out a more effective to-do list and how to manage our time to get to more of the items on the list -- and maybe even figure out how to deal with the overwhelming volume of e-mail in our inboxes. 

Here are van Ogtrop’s tips for maintaining a smarter to-do list:

  1. Find what works for you. Whether that’s using an app on your smartphone, emailing yourself or good old-fashioned paper. Your list can be for today, this week, or your long-term goals.
  2. Avoid piles. "A pile is a deferred decision," van Ogtrop says. And one of the drawbacks of piles is that you only see the thing at the top.
  3. Use your smartphone. It can be a good tool to help you get through your to-do list. Van Ogtrop mentioned 3 apps: Real SimpleRemember the Milk, and Todoist: To-do List.
  4. Put the easiest thing at the top of your list. Van Ogtrop: "Even if I get to nothing else on my list, I’ve crossed one thing off."
  5. Writing down small steps. They can help you get over the psychological hurdle that can come with big tasks. But be careful of putting too much on your to-do list: "If you wake up in the morning and you put 20 things on your to-do list, at the end of the day you will have gotten through 5 and it’s going to make you feel depressed."  
  6. Help your family stay organized. Put a list of 5 things that need to get done over the weekend so your whole family can see it, all the time.
  7. Eliminate distractions. Try to block out times of day when you’ll tackle your email inbox.
  8. Sort your inbox by sender. When you’re coming back from vacation and facing an inbox with hundreds of unread emails, try sorting them by sender so that you make sure you see the messages from the most important people in your life first.
  9. Leave some room for spontaneity, downtime or space to be creative. If you find yourself becoming a slave to your list, ask yourself: "Am I controlling my to-do list or is my to-do list controlling me?"

Keeping organized can help you save time. Real Simple’s study of how women manage their time found that, on average, they spend 55 minutes a day looking for things.


Kristin van Ogtrop

Comments [17]

Crowe from Bed-Stuy, Bklyn

I'm with Pat from NYC: I love To Do lists too. I divide my daily or weekly lists into categories: TO EMAIL, TO CALL, TO DO ONLINE, HOUSEWORK, TO BUY, etc., and then prioritize the tasks. I've used paper lists for a long time, and enjoy crossing things off on them as I get them done. But it recently occurred to me that I'd seen a little whiteboard with erasable marker that I could use instead. Sure enuf, I found one at Family Dollar for under $3. I still cross things off, but when enough things are done, I can erase them.

But for more complicated tasks and projects, I haven't found anything to beat MS Outlook, the older computer-based version, in which I can write as many notes and links as I like and then set with Reminders. Without it, I think I'd go insane. I haven't been able to find a cloud version yet, though it seems they may exist. It would be useful, but since I work from home, it's not essential. I don't want a smart phone; I have an IPod, but to carry around when I'm out, I love Quo Vadis' Academic diaries, which show a week per page spread, and have a sidebar for lists: To Call, To Write, web notes, $$, & memos.

Mar. 20 2014 12:43 AM

You know, you can turn off the ping noise of emails coming in!

Mar. 12 2014 10:39 PM
Kathleen from Manhattan

For your caller who is writing his dissertation - elimination is more important than anything! In a way, he cannot have a "ToDO" list - he can only do his dissertation or it won't get done - so a minimal check list is key. The questions: is this "ToDO" really necessary? Will my life collapse if I ignore it?

Mar. 12 2014 12:59 PM
Tish from UWS

Most of this is not about organization. It's about discipline. You can spend the day making to do lists and it might feel like you're getting things done when you're not.

The challenge is to make the list, prioritize, and then put the list down and begin doing things. Don't make another list until you don't know what to do next. This way you can end your day having finished one big thing and thus accomplished a lot, leaving your list appearing as if it's been neglected but in fact you're making progress.

And by all means avoid social media. It is the end to any kind of achievement.

Mar. 12 2014 12:57 PM
Lisa from Manhattan

Get into bed with a small pad of paper and write down everything you are concerned or anxious about; tell yourself the list is there to address in the morning, and you have nothing to do but sleep. This has been helpful to me and many others I know when suffering from insomnia.

Mar. 12 2014 12:57 PM

Those send email "notes to self" can use tags in the subject lines of those messages and set up mail filters that filter on those tags and send them to corresponding folders.

Mar. 12 2014 12:57 PM
Ny from Brooklyn

I make to-do lists and i think they are great for helping me _remember_ what I need to do, but I have a major procrastination problem and
a) sometimes forget that I have a present to-do list and where it is(sometimes it's a post-it, sometimes a word doc, sometimes notepad on my phone).

But I also b) have a hard time getting myself to do all the things on the to-do list. How do I keep myself honest and do the things on the list I really don't want to do?
Should I set deadlines and punish myself if I don't do them? Should I do the stuff I want to do the least first?

Mar. 12 2014 12:55 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I read a great book a few years ago (which I loaned to someone who never returned it) called "If you Can't Find the Time to do it Right, When Will you Find the Time to do it Over?" Had great organizational hints, especially lists and crossing items off the list. Also, he stressed that it's okay to set aside time to do certain tasks because being constantly interrupted degrades productivity.

Mar. 12 2014 12:52 PM

I used to use iGoogle for To do lists, but Google discontinued it, and I have been lost ever since. And now that I'm unemployed, without the structure of an office, I am completely lost. I make lists, and lose the lists. I've tried other on-line sources, but they all have so many darn bells and whistles I don't use them. Help.

Mar. 12 2014 12:52 PM
Dave from Sunset Park

Funny how men aren't calling into show, despite the gender being totally useless in terms of multitasking. A to-do list is very helpful for the forgetful.

Mar. 12 2014 12:47 PM
ericf from Newark, NJ

Any thoughts on prioritizing items that are very important but in very different ways? (Business vs Personal, etc.)

Mar. 12 2014 12:45 PM
Aldona rygelis from Wllsbg, Bkln.

If I have a particularly crazy, chaotic, frustrating day, I make a "got accomplished" list @ the end of the day to see what I actually did.

Also, long term dreams, fantasies, desires, goals, I post on my board on index cards, one item on each card, and check them every few months, or years. That's really fun to review.

Mar. 12 2014 12:44 PM

easy way not to lose your keys. get some type of key "chain" holder that attaches to your belt. i have a leather strap loop thing from home depot. $6. keys are always on me.

Mar. 12 2014 12:42 PM
ericf from Newark, NJ

Any thoughts on balancing organizing time with doing time? It's easy to find oneself spending half the day managing a list rather than doing what's on it. Where is the point of diminishing returns?

Mar. 12 2014 12:40 PM
Pat from NYC

I love to do lists. They make me feel like I've accomplished something when I cross them off. Even if they are small items like: doing the dishes, buying groceries

Mar. 12 2014 12:38 PM
JB from Hoboken

I've taken the Foreign Service Exam several times. On the personality questionnaire they asked "How often do you make to do lists?", what does making to do lists say about about a person? Can it be a sign of strength or weakness to an employer?

Mar. 12 2014 12:38 PM

Anybody know why Adobe purchased the wonderful "Action Method" (todo list system) -- only to scrap it and push its users to Wunderlist?

Mar. 12 2014 12:37 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.