UofL Writing Center

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The 5-Step Process for Writing a To-Do List

Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Alongside the crisp autumn air and the leaf mosaics covering the ground come final projects, long research papers, and tests galore. In short, it’s crunch time, y’all. So, you may ask, how do we manage our time so we can get our work done and maybe have a little itty bitty bit of fun, too? The answer is a to-do list! Some people may argue that writing a to-do list seems like an activity that only requires halfway conscious thought; I beg to differ. To-do lists not only keep you accountable, but they can actually do wonders for the confidence you have in the work you do.

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If you’re struggling to figure out where to begin, follow these 5 easy steps and you’ll be a to-do list making, reading, writing, studying machine!

1. Include Tasks You Have Already Completed

If you are feeling particularly overwhelmed, write down tasks you have already completed and go ahead and cross them off. Now, I know this may sound a little ridiculous—okay, maybe a lot ridiculous—but it will allow you the feeling of continuing rather than starting a list. Starting is often the hardest part of any project or goal. (Let’s be real, why would you start being productive when you can watch an entire season of Parks and Rec on Netflix in one sitting?) But alas! The future you calls and begs you to do your work, do it well, and do it without pulling all your hair out. If you frame your to-do list in a way that shows that you have already taken the first step towards being productive (even if it is hanging up all your clean laundry or scooping the kitty litter), continuing on to the next task will be just that…a continuation rather than a dreaded beginning. Also, when you’re stressed and you feel like you’re barely staying afloat, marking a task off your (seemingly never-ending) to-do list can be a serious cathartic experience.

2. Write Down the Items in the Order You Intend to Do Them

So, I know this seems like work before starting on the actual work, but you will thank yourself later. Assigning a logical order to your list gives you the opportunity to ease yourself into the work. There are many ways you can organize: start small and build from there, begin with your least favorite subject so you can get it out of the way first, or start with the larger project if you feel like you’ll be productive earlier in the day. Obviously, the way you tailor your to-do list is entirely up to you, but take the time to actually organize it into a logical set of tasks so you’ll be more likely to get into—and stay in—the groove of things.

3. Keep A Logical Scope in Mind

This is absolutely, entirely, so, so important. As a new grad student, I am quickly realizing that making a to-do list is a lot like designing a large research project in that you have to be realistic about what you—as a human being without superpowers or seventeen arms—can accomplish in the amount of time you have. Even if you are making a to-do list for the weekend—which seems like a lot of time—it is still important to think about what you can realistically get done. One, this will help you plan for and prioritize the following week (let’s be honest, chances are that every single thing will not get done on the weekend), and, two, this will keep you from getting discouraged when you check off three or four items, feel great about your progress, and then still have an unending list staring you in the face. Time management, stress management, and keeping yourself sane in the midst of the end of semester madness has a lot to do with being honest with yourself, setting realistic expectations, and feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

4. Be Detailed and Specific

I know this is another moment where you’re thinking, “how much work do I have to do before actually doing the work?”, but again, you will thank yourself later. By “detailed and specific,” I mean, instead of writing down “read for English class,” write down what the individual articles are so you don’t have to go back to your syllabus a hundred times to remind yourself what article from Blackboard applies to what day in class. Also, actually looking at the upcoming assignment will help you know how much you can logically get done in that day (re: step #3).

5. Indicate When the Task is Complete, and Do It Like You Mean It!

The final step is my favorite step. Once you have made your detailed, logical to-do list, get out a colorful pen and go to town marking off, checking off, scratching out, or x-ing through the tasks you have completed. Like I said earlier—for me at least—this is such a cathartic experience. As students, who happen to also do things in regular life, it is easy to feel that we are completely sacrificing one thing in order to pay attention to another. While this demand is part of being a student, creating a to-do list that is manageable and well organized, and scratching through the completed tasks with a vengeance, allows you a well-earned feeling of productivity and accomplishment. Plus, when you can look at all the aweseome things you accomplished that day, you can feel better about entering into a little bit of personal time. So, when you get to crossing off that last task, go treat yourself and celebrate a job well done!

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