To-do list 101 cover

Writing and using an effective to-do list is one of those skills they don’t teach you in school. To-dos are often perceived as such a basic concept, that no explanation beyond,

“Write stuff down and check it off when it’s finished”

is deemed necessary.

I take a different stance. I believe there is more nuance in creating a highly effective to-do list… one that won’t leave you feeling guilty, overwhelmed, or just plain confused.

Here are the top 5 to-do insights discovered after years of list making.

1. Put the DO in Your To-Do List… [and Doing is About Action]

Making your to-do list actionable is relatively easy. To make your list actionable just make sure every item on your list begins with an action verb.

For example instead of writing…

  • passport

You would write…

  • renew passport

To make your to-dos even more doable by keeping each task extremely simple. This can be done by breaking the task down into its smallest parts.

For example:

Renew passport

  • fill out and print off passport docs from the Department of State’s website
  • find birth certificate and social security card
  • go to Walgreens and have 2″x2″ headshot taken
  • write check for $110 to the Department of State
  • bring extra check for acceptance facility
  • go to acceptance facility [1776 W 46th Ave] with all of the materials

Breaking down your list will serve to reduce friction when you are in action mode by eliminating the need to rethink the next step. It also allow you to do pieces of a bigger task when the opportunity arises. To use the passport example, you may pull into Walgreens while passing it on your lunch break because getting a passport photo there was an item on your list.

For those who weren’t fans of English grammar class, here is an A to Z list of  verbs you could use at the beginning of your to-dos

Assess, Budget, Coach, Deliver, Estimate, Define, Execute, Forecast, Group, Help, Improve, Join, Keep, List, Master, Negotiate, Outline, Plan, Question, Research, Schedule, Teach, Utilize, Verify, Write, Xerox, Yell (at), Zero-Inbox

2. Prioritize Your To-Do List

Here at Asian Efficiency, our whole team creates multiple to-do lists. We then select tasks from our lists and prioritize our daily to-do’s by matter of importance.

First we have our A tasks. These are the most important tasks (MIT) of the day and ones we strive – by hook or by crook – to get accomplished by the end of the day.  We then have B tasks that we should do. And finally we have C tasks that would be nice to do.

The team got this idea from Brian Tracy’s book, “Eat That Frog.”

Completing your tasks in order of priority will not only increase your individual productivity, it can help you work better in team environments. For example, if I finished my A’s and B’s I can look over at other team members prioritized to-do lists (we call them Daily Updates). If another team member is struggling to get done with one of their A tasks, I can help them out so everybody’s MITs get done every day.

Prioritizing our individual daily tasks helps the Asian Efficiency team live out our core value of ‘Pulling Others Up’.

Prioritizing your own list is a fairly straightforward activity. When creating your list with pen and paper, write everything down first and then label each item A,B, or C after the fact. If you are using a phone, tablet, or computer app for your to-do list, again, write your list and then shuffle the order so the most important task is on top and the least important is at the bottom.

3. Avoid The Guilt

When you look at your list and see all that needs to get done you might start to feel guilty. This guilt is a big reason people avoid lists in the first place.

The ‘to-do guilt’ generally comes from either feeling bad about prior procrastination or the realization that some of your promises will not be kept. Fortunately there are a number of effective strategies for keeping the guilt at bay.

First and foremost, don’t make a list of things you have to do. Make a list of things you choose to do. This creates a huge difference in attitude and intent.

Second, only worry about your A priority items. Write up a separate list of only A priority items if you have to. Consistently accomplishing your top priorities is going to make the biggest impact on your life.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” –  Vincent Van Gogh

Additionally, don’t put too many to-dos on your A-priority list. This is a mistake that is very easy to make. However, with practice, you will get better at setting more realistic objectives.

Third, have a ‘To-Enjoy List’. If you like shopping and it is on your to-do list, shopping can seem like just another thing to check off an endless list of tasks… then you’re gonna die. However, if you put shopping on your ‘To-Enjoy List’, then shopping seems like a treat you are giving yourself in the middle of the day… life’s great!

4. Avoid The Overwhelm

Overwhelm and guilt are two sides of the same coin. We breath in so we can breath out. We feel guilty so we can become overwhelmed. The biggest thing you can do to prevent feeling overwhelmed by all of your obligations is to keep short lists.

First – to maintain short lists – keep your to-dos in the present. Putting, “Become 46th President of the United States.” is not something that should be on your active to-do list.

  • hire speaking coach
  • read Abraham Lincoln’s biography
  • apply for Senate internship
  • practice kissing babies

are all better to-dos that may lead to your ultimate oval office ambitions.

This doesn’t mean far off, future to-dos shouldn’t be captured. They should just be maintained on a separate list. To borrow an idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you can call the list ‘Someday Maybe’.

‘Someday Maybe’ is usually an enjoyable list to maintain because you can fill it with fun, exciting or rewarding activities that you will do someday in the future. ‘Someday Maybe’ to-dos can include anything from books you want to read, vacations to go on, skills you want to learn or big projects you want to undertake.

‘Someday Maybe’ is an example of the second way to keep your to-do list short by keeping separate lists based off of categories or context.

List categories can include:

  • Project Specific. Gardening, House Remodeling.
  • Someday In The Future. Trip Around the world, Learn Spanish.
  • Easy Wins. Take out the recyling, book dentist appointment.

Or create separate to-do lists based on contexts like

  • @Home. Clean out garage
  • @Phone. Call carpet cleaner
  • @Jim. Ask Jim for an update on project

In addition to keeping the lists from becoming overwhelmingly long, context and category specific lists allow you to jump right into action when the time, location, tools or energy levels are just right.

5. The Right Medium

I personally believe your cell phone is the best place for your to-do list(s). Why? Because most people keep their phone near them most of the day.

In fact, a recent survey showed the 79% of people 18-44 have their phone with them 22 hours of the day.

Smartphone Usage


There are a number of great smartphone applications out there.

My Favorite are:


Trello to-do list manager to-do task manger Wunder List

Wonderlist to-do list manager


omnifocus to-do list managerHowever, if you are in the habit of keeping a Moleskine or some other small notebook with you at all times, then pen and paper is still a very viable option. The two important factors for a list manager is that they are always available for your to add to, review or check off items and that you like using it.

In Closing

Writing effective to-do lists is one of the most vital skills in creating an organized productive life. It allows you to do clarify your next actions by doing your thinking on paper and relieves your brain from the it’s imperfect ability to remember the things you need to do at the right time and place.

Write your to-do list in the comments. As an extra encouragement for you to get started now, I will give a free to-do critique for anyone who posts within the next month.

Remember, keep lists:

  • actionable
  • prioritized
  • guilt free
  • short
  • with you at all times

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Last Updated: February 2, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Guys,
    When you tweet an article this old it throws me as a happy customer of OmniFocus Premium Posts. I remember when you to ABC prioritizing – via contexts w/ those respective letters.
    It didn’t work for me as well as I needed it to and while I should’ve bailed on that method earlier than I did, I was relieved to read Tanh’s post illustrating the reasons you guys were (most of you) moving away from that method.

    I still wrestle as to what is the best way to prioritize in OF and what works of course are the right custom perspectives.

    I love that you’ve recently encouraged us faithful followers to embrace that OF’s flexibility in recognizing it can be so many different things to different people and responsibilities is its greatest strength and with your work and GTD, I’ve stuck with OF which will clearly provide more personal growth than the short sighted list which would frequently wind up as part of a playing not to lose mentality.

    Keep up the feast work just please don’t scare me into thinking that you’ve read opted ABC across the board.

  2. I have one of those 4-column paper day planners designed for a 4-person professional office. I labeled the four “people” for my roles each day – landlord, network marketer, employee, other. I also keep the bank balances for each account in the appropriate column every day. It’s the best system I’ve come up with but I’m going to add the verbs to my to-dos as you suggest! Love the site and the blog!

    1. I actually just randomly met a lady at a cafė in Portland with a very similar system. Her 4 columns where: Wedding, B&B, Consulting, Personal

      The thing I love about paper based systems is how quickly you can capture when you are out and about. Although, personally, I still lean toward digital task managers because of how easy they are to organize. Sharing and automation are also nice features of task management software.

      It’s always a balance.

  3. I like using Outlook because I can easily put emails & attachment into tasks (then all info needed is right there), BUT Outlook has none of the great features of other apps. Any suggestions on an app that works with Outlook on the desktop, ipad & cellphone? Thanks

    1. Hi Carol,
      I live in the Windows world and unfortunately OmniFocus has no Windows version.
      I use MyLifeOrganized in combination with Outlook. The function are similar to OmniFocus. But you need the pro version for syncing with Outlook.
      There are apps for iPhone and android too (I use the android version on my Samsung phone and I have tested the iPhone app on my iPod. On the homepage of MyLifeOrganized is a Hint that there is a special iPad-Version but I haven’t one, so I wasn’t able to test it.)
      BTW, I had to buy a pro licence for android in order to sync via WLAN.

      Alternatives are
      – “Organize” from taskfabric: You can send items from Outlook to Organize
      – “Todoist”: It’s a web-application with a outlook add-in
      – “MindManager”: Yes, you can use it for a task management system ;-)

  4. Yes!

    I started to use OmniFocus in Januari 2014 and with this I created the habit of writing “action items” instead of just listing endless to do’s. What a difference this made already!
    And the prioritizing works phenomenal also, for the reasons you mentioned above.

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