How to Organize Your To-Do List at Work
Ask any well-organized person what the secret to their success is, and they’ll likely tell you all about their to-do list. This seems a simple concept; you get a piece of paper, you write down everything you need to do, and — voila — your day is organized. Yet, it’s a little more complicated in practice.
Using a work to-do list to plan your day, week or year has many amazing benefits, but only if you approach it properly. Let’s break down why traditional pen and paper to-do lists aren’t effective and how to create an amazing task management system for work that you’ll actually stick to.
The benefits of being organized
Keeping an up-to-date and prioritized to-do list can help you stay on top of what you need to do, when you need to do it, and what each task entails. That means greater control over your productivity and day-to-day activities when managing your own workload. A work to-do list can also help:
- you understand what tasks take priority, allowing you to better organize your day
- you be more productive, as you can jump straight from one task to the next, reducing downtime
- mitigate stress levels by providing a clear view of what you need to achieve
- reduce context switching behavior, which can be a huge drain on productivity (43% of people say switching between tasks causes fatigue)
Teams can also use work to-do lists to:
- improve workload management; if two team members working at a similar level have to-do lists detailing tasks of completely disproportionate levels of complexity and time commitment, their workload needs rebalancing
- plan capacity more efficiently and understand who is available to pick up urgent tasks
- track what people worked on and when, helping measure productivity and utilization rates. This data can inform future planning or flag potential issues
Why your old to-do list doesn’t work
You may be reading this thinking, ‘but I’ve tried writing to-do lists before, and they just don’t work for me.’ If so, you may want to consider a different approach. There are many different variations of the ‘to-do list.’ Some will work better than others, depending on your working style, industry, and how much support you need when it comes to organization and planning.
The issue is that when people hear ‘to-do list,’ their minds fill with images of lists jotted down on paper. While still commonly used, this method of creating task lists can be incredibly ineffective.
You can’t set reminders
If you’re prone to distraction or want to use your to-do list to ensure you hit deadlines, an old-school list won’t do. One misplaced notebook, and your plan is gone. Paper also can’t notify you when you’ve got a deadline coming up.
Tasks aren’t prioritized
When you write a to-list down on paper, it’s impossible to include all the detail you need for it to be effective. Noting priority levels is challenging, you can’t track how smaller tasks feed into bigger projects, and if an ad-hoc task is assigned to you at the last minute, the list is not as simple to rearrange.
Modern to-do list apps rank your outstanding tasks in order of when they’re due, making it easier to understand what needs to be done next. There’s nothing like seeing a task highlighted in bright red to remind you of its urgency!
It’s not collaborative
If you’re using a to-do list to organize a section of your workload that is informed by or impacts the work of others, a written list won’t cut the mustard. That’s because it isn’t collaborative. Digital to-do lists can help teams to work together more efficiently; you can assign tasks to your colleagues and even add documents to tasks to help make others’ lives easier. A task list scribbled on a post-it note can’t do that.
Forecast’s top 10 tips for creating a to-do list you’ll stick to
Your to-do list is your guiding light when it comes to workload management. No matter what app you choose to use, follow these 10 tips to get the most out of your to-do list.
1. Include everything, no matter how big or small
Need to finish a business-critical report by 11am on Friday? Add it to your to-do list.
Need to call finance to chase up approval for a new vendor? You guessed it — add it to your to-do list.
A common mistake people make is not making a note of everything they need to do. The risk here is that small tasks, like making phone calls or checking in with people, can be forgotten. Unfortunately, forgetting these seemingly small tasks can have consequences later down the road. For example, failing to set up a new vendor could mean they aren’t able to work on your project, leading to a delay while you source an alternative.
Whenever you think of something you need to do, add it to your list, even if it’s a task for the next week — this guarantees you won't forget it!
2. Organize tasks by priority, due date, and category
A to-do list without prioritization is destined to fall by the wayside. The best practice is to always include a task’s priority level and due date, allowing you to better prioritize throughout the day and week.
You can also add categories or labels to your tasks, helping you keep your list organized. This is especially important if you’re working on multiple projects simultaneously.
3. Stay away from vague descriptions
When giving a task a title, make it as specific as possible. ‘Call David’ helps no one if you’ve forgotten what you need to call David about. But ‘Call David to discuss feedback on weekly resource planning’ means you can quickly get to work when the task pops up as due today. Additional context can also be added in the form of notes or attachments to help you get to work faster.
4. Break larger to-dos into smaller, actionable tasks
If your to-dos are quite complex, a good way to make them feel more manageable is to break them into smaller tasks or sub-tasks. Sub-tasks sit within the larger task but can have their own deadlines and priority levels, helping you better plan your time.
5. Batch similar tasks together
If you have multiple tasks relating to the same project, try to complete these together. This is called timeboxing, which helps you work faster by reducing the amount you have to context switch. Switching between tasks can be challenging for your brain, but if you’re already on a roll, moving smoothly into another task that relates to the first can reduce stress and improve focus.
6. Get your team involved
As mentioned, digital to-do lists can be used collaboratively by teams. Getting everyone to work on one platform increases visibility, allowing team members to keep each other accountable and offer support when the work starts to pile up.
7. Set up a reward system
With countless digital to-do lists available, it can be hard to find the right one for you. If you’re motivated by rewards, it may be wise to choose a tool that racks up points as you tick off completed tasks. Alternatively, you can set yourself goals and rewards based on your productivity. Two hours worked = a chocolate chip cookie.
8. Learn from what you don’t complete
Working smarter comes from practice and understanding how you work. That includes knowing how much you can realistically complete in a day and what you have a habit of procrastinating completing. Each day, review your to-do list to see what you’ve not got round to or put off completely.
This will help you better plan your time in the future. If you hate compiling reports, for example, you may want to employ the Eat the Frog method, which leads us onto…
9. Use a prioritization system
The best way to organize your to-do list for work is through prioritization. There are many ways you can define priority level, but one of the most effective is the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. This helps you prioritize workload by sorting tasks into four quadrants based on their level of urgency and importance. This shows what you need to do first, what can be done later, what should be delegated, and what you can remove from your list.
Another method is the Eat the Frog technique, which sees you completing your most dreaded tasks immediately upon starting your workday.
10. Plan in advance
The last task of your work day should be ‘review to-do list’. Take five minutes to go over what you didn’t get to and what needs to be prioritized tomorrow. Then you can hit the ground running the next morning.
It’s also worth planning in a slightly longer session once a week to review your overarching goals and to-do list for the upcoming month.
How Forecast can help you get more done
Effective project management begins with effective project planning. Whether you’re a project manager or team lead, you need to be clear on what the team’s goals, priorities, and capabilities are before anyone can clearly define their to-dos. That means frequently reviewing long-term project goals, resource allocation, and utilization rates.
Forecast helps you do all this and more. Give your team the best chance at creating effective to-do lists by making their workload clear, fair, and prioritized with easy-to-understand reports and AI-led resource planning. Plus, our digital to-do list and project management integrations allow your team to manage their workload effectively based on the work you’re already doing in Forecast.
Try Forecast out for yourself by signing up for a free trial below.