The secret to an effective to do list

By Kim Soko Schaefer

The list never ends. But that’s not because you have too much to do. It’s because you have a bad system.

Prioritization matters. A lot. And chances are your list is just a bunch of disorganized tasks. If that’s the case keep reading, you need this more than the rest of us.

The rest of us, bookmark this wherever you do such things and come back during your ‘article reading’ time. It’s worth it.

The parts of my to do list system

The best systems are simple. So is mine. It has three parts:

  1. The Roadmap for annual planning
  2. Current to do list for immediate tasks
  3. Long term to do list for things I need to do, eventually
  4. Sticky notes, because life


The best systems are also free. So is mine. Everything discussed in this article will be sent to your inbox if you simply agree to join my email list. Given I rarely (like a few times a year) send out emails, this is a no brainer. Sign up here.


My system starts with my favorite planning tool, The Roadmap planning tool. This is a free, easy to use Google Sheet that keeps track of all the major moving parts of any project I’m working on. From my business, to my personal life, this tool covers it all. 


Next I have my Current To Do list (which I keep as a tab along with The Roadmap and the Long Term To Do in a single workbook). At the top of my Current list are my priorities. Ideally there is just 1 here, but more realistically there are 3-5 (but no more than 5).

My priorities mostly stay the same, week to week, until I’ve either accomplished them or moved on to the next major phase of whatever I’m doing. For each priority, I assign a percentage of time I need to dedicate to that item. 75% of my time (or more) should go to my top 1-2 priorities. The other 2-3 priorities are for smaller things I might need to keep in mind, but that don’t take much time.

Because it’s difficult for me to narrow my focus that much (I like to do lots of things at once), to the right of my ‘priorities’ I have an area for the things that are coming up next which I call ‘Later.’ I keep these things muted in a light grey and off to the side so they don’t distract me when I’m working or creating tasks. But it helps my mind to relax and focus knowing that I’ve at least ‘captured’ what’s coming next on my plate.

This is how this looks for me right now:


Under my priorities are my action items. I keep three columns:

  • Task
  • Status
  • Due Date


When things are really crazy this is just a long laundry list of things I need to get done, by a certain date. When I’m organized and operating with a good rhythm, this list gets broken down by day. I only work 3 days / week so this makes it easier for me to really understand what needs to happen when.


And then there is the graveyard…er…Long Term To Do List. This is the final tab, and this is where I put down the ideas or tasks that I’d like to get to, but know I don’t have time for right now (or aren’t aligned to my current priorities). This is also where I put things that I have to remember to do, eventually. 

Most of these things just go in the Roadmap, but if I’m not quite sure WHEN I should add these things, if the timeline or purpose is a bit more ambiguous, it goes to the LT TO DO (as I call it).


Again, all of the above are part of the free purpose toolkit you receive when you sign up for my newsletter.


Yes, sticky notes. I work part time, from home, so on the days when I’m not working, I don’t want to be reminded of work. I want to be fully present with my kids. So on Wednesdays and Fridays I use sticky notes for my to do lists. 

This is one of the ways I use boundaries to keep my work life separate from my mom life. I realize a lot of people just want everything together, and that’s great, you should do that. But for me, this works.

In the interest of sharing and transparency, here is what that looks like for me right now:

I used to write these things down in my notebook…but do you know what else is in my notebook? Work notes. And I would end up getting distracted with work stuff. Plus, I can easily take my sticky notes with me wherever I go (I also use them for grocery lists), so I always have them.

If there is something I need to do in a future week…it goes at the bottom of my Current To Do list. The only other exception is when a ‘personal’ task is super important and needs to happen on a work day…like vote or a dentist appointment, etc. But other than that, sticky note it is 🙂

How I use my system

Annually, or whenever I’m updating and reviewing my entire business strategy, I always start with The Roadmap. This is where the big major pieces of any project go at the ‘month’ level. This would be things like ‘continue content development for online course’ or ‘review web analytics (quarterly)’ etc.

At the beginning of each month, I break down any major project into more manageable chunks at the week level. This also happens in The Roadmap and would include things like ‘Finalize course content outline’ the first week, ‘add necessary graphics’ in the second week, etc.

At the beginning of each week, I check out the Roadmap and update my Current To Do List tab with the very specific tasks of what I hope to accomplish each day. Continuing with our example, this would be even more specific like ‘create framework graphic for lesson 2’ or ‘create timeline graphic for introduction.’

Each morning I tackle as many of the smallest, easiest tasks as possible to complete in the first hour (for me this 9-10am). This is generally a lot of personal things like:

  • Re-schedule my son’s dentist appointment
  • Cancel the XYZ free trial subscription
  • Pay ABC bill
  • Share Y resource with X community
  • Respond to emails, etc.


I’m sure there are lots of experts who urge you to tackle the big things first, but I always spend the first hour of my day checking off as many little things as I can. Why?

  1. I’m MOST effective (thinking, writing, using my brain, etc.) after 10am. I never schedule meetings before then. I find my brain needs some ‘warm up’ exercises to get things going so that first hour isn’t ideally suited to big tasks anyway
  2. I get a productivity rush from crossing things off my list. It motivates me in a way few other things can. I feel good when I can feel ‘accomplished’ so early in the day
  3. It clears my head for the more important things and makes me much less likely to procrastinate when I really need to ‘focus’ on the big tasks at hand. Once something is done, off the list, I don’t ever think about it again.


After my small tasks are out of the way I get to my bigger tasks. I use the strikethrough formatting option to cross things off the list which is the BEST FEELING EVER (amiright?). I copy and paste and move things around when I realize something isn’t going to get done today, or when I complete something that was due another day.

I like to be able to look back at the end of the week and reflect on what I got done when. This helps me keep in mind what a ‘realistic’ day looks like so I don’t over-schedule in the future.

Tips to help you better manage your tasks


Behavioral scientists have come up with the term ‘Planning Fallacy’ to describe our tendency to underestimate how long it takes us to complete a task. Everybody does it. This is why we always feel behind, we always feel busy. It’s because we plan to do too much.

To compensate for this, I like to leave one day / month as a make up day to catch up on all the things I didn’t get done. In reality, I should leave half a day a week for this, but who has that kind of time?! 🙂


Then there are those annoying tasks that just get moved…from one day to the next, from one week to the next, and on, and one. I hate those things.

If something stays on your to do list for more than a month, and never gets done it. Consider why?

  • Is it because you’re waiting on someone or something? 
  • Is it because it’s difficult or challenging?
  • Is it because of fear? Of how others might respond? Of failure? 
  • Is it because it’s just not worth the time it takes to complete? What’s the return?


If the task is truly essential, like paying your taxes, and your reason for not doing it is because of fear or knowing you don’t have the resources to pay…JUST DO IT! Not tomorrow, not next week, right this second. Or better yet, farm it out. Can you pay someone to do it? Can you ask a family or friend for help? Who on your team can you redistribute it to?

The mental cost of that task hanging over your head is not worth the headache or pain of actually just doing it. For example, if it is taxes you can’t afford to pay, remember the IRS always has ways to help you out. They’d rather get something than nothing. But the fear and anxiety of pushing it off one more week will literally kill you. What’s worse? Paying back the government by skipping a few nights out with friends or slowly killing your mind and body with stress? Seriously.

If you find the task is not essential, it’s a ‘would be nice to do’ not a ‘have to do,’ then strike it off the list. Delete it. If you haven’t done it yet, you’re not going to do it. If you think it’s a really good idea but you just don’t have the time right now…move it to your long term to do list.


This is an all-time favorite tip: if a task takes less than 5 minutes to complete, don’t write it down, JUST DO IT! Seriously, game changer. You will end up spending more than the amount of time it takes to complete the task if you write it down, organize it, move it around, consider when it should get done, etc. DON’T DO THAT. 

Simply, do the task as it occurs to you, and move on. 

Do you have any other tips that have improved your ability to organize and complete tasks? I’d love to hear them. Just write them down in the comments section below and share with us.