Build a Better To-Do List: Get More Done and Feel Less Overwhelmed

Most smart women I meet have never-ending to-do lists swirling in their heads. Everywhere we turn, we see unfinished tasks–at home or at the office. Being surrounded by constant reminders of things undone can make us feel overloaded and exhausted.

better to-do list
Do you have a never-ending to-do list?

I not only have first-hand experience but, years ago, my colleagues and I conducted research on the subject and co-authored the report Feeling Overworked.

Why most to-do lists don’t make women feel better

Many people keep written or online to-do lists to stay organized. But while such lists can certainly help, they can’t stop us from feeling overwhelmed. In fact, some say they don’t bother keeping to-do lists while others claim they don’t have the time to list everything.

I believe women often have it even harder for two reasons:

  1. Women often take care of things that are neither scheduled or planned. If a child is sick, they are usually the ones who take them to the doctor. If the dishwasher starts to leak, they know whom to call. These tasks don’t make it on to any to-do lists and therefore don’t get recognized.
  2. Women are more likely to volunteer for things that don’t always help them. Researchers recently found that women are more likely to do “office housework,” or undesirable, time-consuming tasks that don’t usually lead to career advancement. Such work reminds me of the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Both of these kinds of tasks can leave you feeling as though you “didn’t get anything done today,” when in fact you accomplished a lot–just not the stuff you had planned to do or really wanted to do.

I offer an antidote.

Three steps to a better to-do list

Here is what my coaching clients and I have found helpful:

  1. Track everything you accomplish by keeping a “got-done list” alongside your to-do list. This may feel cumbersome, but it’s surprisingly quick, easy, and–most importantly–uplifting. Simply cross out things as you complete items on your to-do list. If you do something unplanned that never made it to your list, write it down on your got-done list.
  2. Let yourself off the hook with a “someday-maybe list.” This is different from a bucket list, which includes lifelong goals to do before you die, or “kick the bucket.” A someday-maybe list, — recommended by David Allen — is a placeholder for things you might want to do in the future. By recording these items, you take them out of your mind so you can focus on priorities. It’s best to keep only one version of your someday-maybe list and put it where you know you’ll always be able to find it. Be sure to include tasks you feel guilty you can’t get to now. This will help diffuse everyday strain.
  3. Take time to admire your got-done list. This step is key. Deep down, we all want others to appreciate what we do. But, we can’t always rely on someone else to give us the recognition we deserve. So, we need to acknowledge our hard work ourselves.

Why this better to-do list helps

To feel good, we need to take pride in what we do–big or small. Lasting joy doesn’t come from external sources, it comes from within.

Making better choices about how we spend our time now (to-do list), letting go of what we don’t want/need to do (someday-maybe list) and reviewing what we’ve accomplished (got-done list) are ways to guide us to work that gives us more energy. It helps us avoid work that drains us.

We each have 24 hours a day. Every activity we choose means we forego another activity. I believe this better to-do list helps us manage those trade-offs.

Try it out and let me know how it goes.

An older version of this article was published in April 2013.