Creating and managing a winning to-do list yields more happiness and less stress, and more achievement and less overwhelm.
After honing my to-do list strategy for 17 years, I have settled on this to-do list template.
By no means is this an end all be all to-do list. You should customize it based on your personality and preferences. Follow these steps, implement our to-do list tips, and create your winning to-do list to manage your priorities.
how to create and manage a winning to-do list
Any List is Better Than No List
However, the goal of this article is to help you transform your current to-do list. We’ll create it together, and learn how to manage your to-do list for better, optimized outcomes. So, here we go!
Alex and I set out on a path to engineer our best life in March 2018. We left our engineering jobs that we had for the eight years prior.
Creating and managing winning to-do lists were paramount in being able to take this leap and run a business that sustains our travel lifestyle. However, it took years of experimentation to settle on a winning to-do list.
As a college student, my At-A-Glance daily planner was with me everywhere but at the bars. That handy planner worked well in 2006.
Once I started working as an engineer, I started experimenting with to-do lists to handle a higher workload, more varied tasks, and customer-specific requirements in addition to my own.
During one experiment, my cubicle was cloaked in enough Post-It Notes to be a fire hazard. When I finished the task written on the Post-It, I crumpled it and threw it on the ground.
I concluded that the dopamine rush when I did this was huge compared to checking off a task with a pen on paper. But, eventually, I stopped to save the trees and not look like a fool.
At this point, I realized that my to-do list methodology was all wrong.
To-Do List Methods
I was taking the weight off of my brain by writing down all tasks. This action alone prevented stress because now I didn’t have to worry about forgetting.
But, my lists were not organized in a way that would help reach my goals effectively or efficiently. When I changed companies in 2014, I decided to create and manage a goal achieving to-do list.
Stress Relieving To-Do List:
An assortment of lists that help you not to forget things. They provide a dopamine, feel-good boost when you check something off but they offer no organization of tasks based on your priorities.
Goal Achieving To-Do List:
One list, organized based on short and long term goals. The list is with you always and accessible on multiple devices. It provides a bigger dopamine hit when you check something off.
With my new-found goal achieving to-do list mentality, I consolidated my to-do lists into a note on my phone. I still wrote to-do lists with pen and paper, but at the end of the day, everything was transcribed onto my mobile list.
By 2015, I had created a to-do list that was producing winning results in my professional life. Recently, when we followed our 7-Day Unplug from Technology Detox, I found all of my old lists in my phone archives.
Out of curiosity, I opened up my December 2016 to-do list. I could see what goals I had, what tasks were completed weekly, and what farfetched ideas I had at the time. Here’s a screenshot, although I had to blur out company and product details.
As you can see, I am a huge fan of the checkboxes (love that rush!). In my experience, creating and managing a to-do list following the steps below will help you have a clear head and excel in your personal and professional life for two simple reasons.
1. You’ll be reliable. Your friends, family, customers, and coworkers don’t want flaky. They want someone who does what they say they’ll do.
2. You’ll achieve goals that people didn’t expect you to meet. That will make you indispensable.
As you can see in the picture, my “Top 5” and “Top 10” goals are included in my to-do list. Having this visibility kept me focused and made it easy to prioritize to-do list tasks. When tasks weren’t aligned with my goals, I took them off the list.
This methodology helps me identify the most productive things to do and make the right decisions
It was fun to find this archived to-do lists because it reinforced the power of a winning to-do list. Each of my major top 5 goals from 2016 was a win.
In our latest article, ‘How to Write Goals,’ we share the science behind various goal-writing strategies and finish with our top 5 tips on how to write effective goals.
Creating and managing your to-do list
Follow these steps and learn how to create and manage a winning to-do list.
Maybe you have everything already under control with your current to-do list. That’s great! I am NOT claiming that this is the only “holy grail” of to-do lists.
But it is unique. The mobile approach, daily management, and integrating your goals into your to-do list is a winning formula to create:
- More happiness and less stress
- Efficient achievement and less overwhelm
- Higher success and less dreaming
Say goodbye to the days when you’re busy all day long but go to bed feeling like nothing got done. Going forward, the to-do list we create and manage is one of your greatest assets.
Step 1: Embrace Technology
Your winning to-do list will live on your phone.
Create the to-do list in an app on your mobile phone that updates automatically on your laptop. That way, it’s always with you and accessible.
We recommend Evernote. It’s free, you can access the list on two devices (more if you upgrade to premium), the lists are shareable, and it’s user-friendly. OneNote and iPhone Notes are also suitable, but we find Evernote the most seamless with the best functionality.
So, download Evernote onto your phone and computer. Then, on either device, create a new note titled “MONTH YEAR To-Do List.” Within the note, create a table with 1 row and 2 columns.
Resist the temptation to use a paper list and create a habit of using your mobile list. We can all agree that keeping a to-do list with pen to paper can be highly effective. But is that pen and paper with you at all times like your phone?
Chances are, you don’t carry it consistently, and paper notes are easier to misplace than an $800 handheld computer.
When I was in my sales job, I always took notes on a small legal pad. That worked best for me because I wanted my customers to know that they had my full attention. Also, in meetings, there was always someone who thought it was rude to have a phone or computer out, even if you were taking notes.
So, if you’re like I was, and still want to use the paper and pen, that’s fine. We can compromise. Take handwritten notes but then copy your to-do list onto your mobile list each day, through your phone or computer.
Don’t think of it as extra work. Think of it as another step toward prioritizing your to-do list, reviewing your tasks a second time, and cementing them in your brain.
Step 2: Use One Master List
It’s time to declutter. You only get one master to-do list.
Find all of your existing to-do lists and consolidate them into one master list in Evernote or preferred app. Add all items to the first column within your “MONTH YEAR To-Do List.”
Take your time gathering all of your tasks. Don’t forget the note you jotted down in your car, the items written in your paper calendar, the to-do list of flagged or “unread” emails in your inbox, or the legal pad on your desk at work.
Having one list is critical to keep you happy, organized, balanced, and productive in all areas of life.
It might feel wrong to blend your personal to-do list and your work to-do list. I experimented with managing a personal, work, and side-gig to-do list separately. Having three to-do lists made the prioritization of daily tasks complicated.
Each list had tasks that needed to get done that day, but since they were in different locations, deadlines were forgotten or missed. Plus, which of my three to-do lists should get the most priority?
I hate to say it, but my prioritization was work first, side-gig second, and personal third. That’s not healthy, and for me, the double focus on work led to burnout. Having one list will balance your life.
Step 3: Make Your Master List Longer
Each large task or goal on your list has several smaller steps. Time to expand your to-do list.
In addition to your existing to-do lists, you have more to-do list items stored in your brain. If something else in your life needs to get done, add it. When you have an interesting idea like “learn how to make artisanal bread,” add it.
If it’s something you want to remember, like “follow up with Greg,” add it to the list. If it’s a stretch goal that would drastically improve your life, like decluttering the house as a couple, definitely add it to the list.
Your new to-do list is going to be huge! If you’re like me, you’ll have a list of 50-100 tasks. Well done.
Don’t be overwhelmed by this huge list. That’s not the point. The point is to get everything documented so you can better prioritize and allocate your precious time.
Adding it to the list means the task is no longer weighing down your brain. After evaluating your list, you can delete it if you decide it doesn’t deserve your time.
Step 4: Add Your Goals
Goals are major, life-improving events that you want to achieve. Your goals drive the prioritization of tasks on your to-do list.
First, it’s important that you learn how to write your goals. Then, in the second column of your to-do list, write down your goals for the year, or years, ahead.
I recommend listing out your “Top 5” and “Top 10” goals. For each goal, make sure you have all of the steps required to achieve that goal listed as tasks on your to-do list.
For example, if your goals are to get in shape, learn how to cook healthy meals for your family, or improve your financial situation, you could list the following tasks.
Get in shape:
- Document my baseline with measurements, photos, and a Fitness Test
- Try 2-3 at-home fitness programs and commit to the one I like best
Learn how to cook healthy meals:
- Cook one new healthy recipe a week
- Take a vegetarian cooking class once a quarter
- Research ways to add more vegetables into my meals
Improve financial situation:
- Research a website platform to share your passion
- Schedule quarterly meetings to review couple’s finance
Aligning your to-do list with your goals is the winning to-do list secret sauce.
It’s the difference between just being busy and being effective. Writing your goals down is powerful, but seeing your goals daily when you check your to-do list is significantly more powerful.
With your “top 5” and “top 10” goals visible, you can quickly prioritize, or, more importantly, remove tasks on your list that aren’t in alignment with your goals.
>> By the way, we talk extensively about goal-setting and creating appropriate tasks and steps to get you there in our Just Duo It program. The first phase focuses on the stepladder approach and how to categorize short term, long term, and dream goals for success.
Step 5: Organize Your List
Organize your tasks based on time sensitivity and priority.
In the first column of the to-do list you created, type “Today,” “Week 1,” “Week 2,” “Week 3,” “Week 4,” and “Queue.” Then, move each task into one of those sections.
The “Today” section is the most critical right now, but, take this time to plan out your month ahead. Tasks that are longer-term than four weeks can go into the “Queue.”
There are many ways you can organize your to-do list. If you don’t already have a procedure, use this one. Over time you can tweak it based on your preferences.
For example, I come up with a lot of ideas that could take hours of my time if I allowed. Instead, I created a section titled “Ideas” so that I can jot them down and revisit them later.
Don’t put too many tasks in the “Today” section or you’ll be set up for disappointment. Instead, list 3-6 tasks in the order you’ll complete them.
If you complete all six tasks and there’s more time in the day, you can always move on to other “Week 1” tasks.
Here is a snapshot of what my August 2019 To-Do List looks like in Evernote. But, my section labeled “Queue” is not shown, and it contains over 50 tasks.
It’s obvious why we need to organize our tasks based on priority. So, let’s talk about Alex’s mantra.
Her mantra is, “your frog is my b*tch.” The frog is your to-do list item that is the most intimidating. It’s the task that we want to keep putting off.
But, it’s also the task that yields the greatest result, moving you closer to one of your goals. Make your frog the first to-do list item you do instead of doing the easy tasks first to get warmed up. Or else, you’ll never seem to get it done.
Step 6: Have a Date With Your List
You need to make your “Today” list every day.
Set a date with your list. Pick a time of day when you’ll make your list. It needs to be done at the same time each day, and ideally, in the same place.
When I worked in my engineering job, it worked best for me to make my to-do list for the next day at the end of my workday. This process allowed me to check out and not worry about forgetting a meeting the next day.
Currently, I make my to-do list after my morning workout, and before I begin the workday. I sit on the bed, after my shower, and write out my list for the day ahead. Set a daily alarm on your phone to remind you to make your “Today” list.
Make sure you’re checking your to-do list frequently throughout the day to stay on track. If you find that days get away from you, set three daily alarms on your phone as a reminder to check your list.
At the start of a new month, duplicate your note titled “MONTH YEAR To-Do List” and rename it for the new month. Use this time to review your long term goals and evaluate how well you stuck to them the previous month.
Making your “Today” to-do list forces you to stay focused on productive daily tasks. If you don’t have set tasks to complete each day, you might get lost for hours in social media or emails. A winning to-do list drives a productive day.
Winning To-Do List Conclusions
Good luck creating and managing your to-do list. I hope these steps and my to-do list template helps you simplify your life and become more effective. The following are the most important to-do list takeaways.
- Make your list on your phone.
- Only keep one to-do list.
- Keep your goals on the same list.
- Set your to-do list items daily.
- Give your partner access to the list for accountability and task sharing.
- Enroll you and your partner in our Just Duo It program
If you have winning ideas to create and manage a better to-do list, please share your ideas in the comments section below.
Just Duo It
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Hey we're Ryan and Alex
The creators of Ryan and Alex Duo Life. We are a husband-wife duo and “lifestyle engineers.”
After eight years working in the corporate world as engineers, we left our high-powered jobs to tackle our true passion — helping couples engineer their best lives.
The synergy of our engineering minds and ten years of health coaching experience produced Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Our mission is to help you transform your bodies, minds, and relationship as a couple.
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