The Key to Writing a Realistic To-Do List

I'm a big fan of to-do lists. I love seeing them laid out in my planner, I love adding subtasks (lists within lists!) to Asana, and most of all, I love checking them off. There's nothing more disappointing than ending the day with a to-do list that's still got seven things on it. Seeing those unchecked items is a sure-fire way to feel guilty and unproductive. Even worse, those unfinished tasks can make you forget about all the hard work you did put in today! If this sounds familiar, you might have a problem with unrealistic to-do lists:

  • You constantly go back to work at night and on the evenings to finish "just one more thing" on your list.
  • You consistently move at least three unfinished tasks from today's list onto tomorrow's.
  • You feel unfocused, like you're trying to do too many things and they're all just distracting you.
  • Your brain is constantly moving in a hundred different directions trying to keep up with everything on your plate.

The problem isn't you, it's your to-do list. 

Unrealistic to-do lists are never going to help you get more done. They're going to make you feel like you're on a hamster wheel, never getting anywhere. The solution? Writing to-do lists that are actually doable!

A realistic to-do list can help you

  • see your progress;
  • end each day feeling accomplished and productive;
  • eliminate tasks that aren't actually important;
  • actually stop working at the end of the day.

Sounds magical, right? Luckily, there's one simple thing you can do to start creating your own realistic to-do lists.

Get intentional about your life and become more productive by writing realistic to-do lists you can actually accomplish in a day! This simple tip will help you get started.
Get intentional about your life and become more productive by writing realistic to-do lists you can actually accomplish in a day! This simple tip will help you get started.

Track your time

You can't write a realistic to-do list if you have no idea how long it actually takes you to accomplish the things you do each day! Tracking your time is a game-changer when it comes to deciding on the day's to-dos.

I recently read Laura Vanderkam's book, I Know How She Does It (affiliate link). I learned quite a bit from Ms. Vanderkam, but my favorite takeaway was that it typically takes us longer to do things than we think it will. We underestimate time by assuming we'll work faster than average, we won't be interrupted, or that this will be the one day traffic won't stop us in our tracks on the way to an appointment. 

When I did my own time-tracking study, I learned that I tend to underestimate how long individual tasks take me and overestimate how much time I actually spend working each week. This meant that I was trying to pack 20 hours worth of work into a 15-hour workweek . . . and was disappointed when I had leftover tasks that never seemed to get done!

Tracking your time gives you the knowledge you need to intentionally plan your day. Once you know how long things really take, you'll stop overbooking yourself.

How to write a realistic to-do list

Tracking your time is the key to kicking unrealistic to-do lists to the curb, but there are some other steps you can take to make the to-do list of your dreams a reality.

1. Write down how long you think a task will take.

Once you've tracked your time for a week or two, you'll have a pretty good idea of how long those to-do tasks will really take you. I like to make a note of that time estimate next to each task so I can easily tell if I'm trying to cram too much into one day. This also gives me a way to check my progress. If I'm 90 minutes into Hadley's naptime and I'm still working on a task I thought I'd finish in a half hour, I can safely cross something off the end of the list and move it to tomorrow instead of trying frantically to wrap it up after dinner. (This is also a good way to remind yourself to stay off social media while you're working!)

2. Focus on three tasks.

This is an idea I got from using my trusty Day Designer(affiliate link). Each daily page in the Day Designer has a spot for your "top 3" for the day. Those three things are your top priority for the day. If you get through them, you can move on to the rest of your list. This is a great way to keep your focus on your most important tasks when time is limited.

3. Get rid of the little stuff.

The busier I get (read: the more kids I have), the more I realize it's okay to outsource little tasks to other people---or not do them at all. If there are tasks that constantly hang out on the bottom of your to-do list or never make it to your top three, it means they're not a priority in your life. Why waste brain power worrying about them? Give yourself permission to take them off the list forever, either by hiring them out or simply deciding that they're not something you're going to do.

>>> Want to get even more intentional about how you spend your day? Learn how (and why) I focus on doing less! <<<

What are your best tips for writing a realistic to-do list? Share them with me in the comments!