How to be organised and make better to-do lists

How effective is your to-do list? Do you cross things off it throughout the day? Is it a scrolling and never-ending beast? Does it fill you with dread and remind you of all the things you haven't done? Does it help you achieve the important things in your life?

It's amazing how little thought can go into the making of a to-do list. Considering all the time and effort people spend trying to make their projects and businesses more productive, you'd think we might have the same focus on personal habits, as it's the personal habits and actions that inform the larger work.

A to-do list may sound trivial, but if it's central to how you accomplish the tiny steps that help you complete a larger project or business venture, then it needs to be rock solid. If your to-do list is the foundation of your work, take a minute to think about whether your lists are effective, and how you can improve them.

A good to-do list should be fulfilling – not fill you with dread. Here's what you need to know and do to make better to-do lists.

Tasks, objectives, goals

What's the difference between tasks, objectives, and goals?

Goals are the big picture achievements or desired outcomes, and they're usually difficult to quantify. A goal might be "to become fluent in Hindi," or "to create the best website in the UK for outdoor sports e-commerce."

Objectives are markers on the way to reaching the goal. Typically, objectives are quantifiable and much easier to define than goals; remember that the word "objective" comes from the root word "object." There's something of substance in an objective. An example of an objective might be "carry out a full conversation with the Hindi shopkeeper," or "increase UK outdoor enthusiast website audience by 20 per cent this year through focused social media campaign."

Tasks are the actions one takes to reach an objective. Very often, they are single events, although they can repeat. A task might be "Tweet about the skiing promotion," or "learn three new Hindi verbs."

Tasks – not goals or objectives – are what belong on an effective to-do list. But it is important to always know what your objectives and goals are, too. If your tasks are not getting you closer to your objectives and goals, why are you wasting your time doing them?

With personal to-do lists, your goal might be something unstated, like "better manage the family budget." You know in your head that's why your to-do list contains tasks that relate to finance, but the goal might not be explicit. If you're reading this article, you may be thinking about those unstated goals – which is good! If you know the goal, your tasks and to-do list become more meaningful. Instead of looking like a tedious list of the chores you have to get done, it becomes a clear path toward greater fulfilment.

Qualities of effective to-do lists

Here are some qualities of an effective to-do list. It is by no means a comprehensive affair, though, and I encourage readers to share their input on this topic in the comments section below.

Shaped by a clear goal: As mentioned, the tasks that go on your perfect to-do list should be in pursuit of a higher goal. If your goal has been unstated until now, take a moment to consider what it is.

Implicit in this quality is the fact that it's okay – if not downright preferable – to have more than one list. You might have different lists for different projects, or some for work and some for home. I personally don't think putting tasks that refer to disparate goals on the same list is a good idea (this is explained in more detail later).

If you're new to list-making, stick with one or two to-do lists to start with until you learn your own habits and see how you're actually using them as opposed to how you thought you would. Don't scale up your to-do lists until you've seen one in operation.

Contains tasks, not goals: The items on a good to-do list are concrete and have a potential "completed" state. That is to say, they're tasks and not goals. There is a state of completion for the task "Call my wife" but not for the task "Appreciate my wife more."

Objectives are a little trickier. Sometimes objectives belong on a to-do list, and sometimes not. It all depends on the size of the objective and how close you are to reaching it. Writing down an objective can help you keep it in mind, which is sometimes necessary when building your to-do list. The objective may define deadlines, for example, which I'll explain next.

Assigns reasonable deadlines: Effective to-do lists are marked up with deadlines. Every task has an order of priority, and every task has a deadline. For most people, high-priority tasks have a deadline of "today." Do you need to write that down? Maybe. Maybe not.

Deadlines should be realistic and reasonable. Don't set 17 tasks as urgently due today when really only four must get done by the end of the day "or else!" If you put unrealistic deadlines on yourself, you'll hate your to-do list because it will be a constant reminder of what you haven't done. Instead, what it should be is a set of steps that help you reach a goal or objective.

If you need to reach an objective by Friday, you can work backward to set deadlines for the tasks to get you there. In this case, I might write down the objective on the list and assign it a deadline of Friday. Friday is the day to assess that objective – that's probably even the best way to describe it as a task. Throughout the week, when you refer to your to-do list for the concrete tasks, you'll always see and remember the final objective, which can be motivating – or at least help you stay focused on why the tasks exist in the first place.

The best to-do list apps let you set deadlines in the future and then automatically update a task to the highest priority when the deadline turns into "today." The automation of electronic to-do lists can't be beaten. Deadlines move in real time to "today" or urgent status. You never have to cross out, erase, and re-record tasks because you can change them and reprioritise them as other tasks come off the list.

Seen at a glance: In an article last week, I wrote about the reasons why your email inbox is not an effective to-do list. One of the reasons is you can't see at a glance what you need to do by looking at your inbox. The subject lines don't necessarily describe the task accurately, and an inbox can be overwhelmingly full. A good to-do list, on the other hand, is short. You should be able to glance at it and know in a second or two what you have to do next, as well as the next priority that follows.

Contains tasks you will do: Some people joke that the first item on their to-do list is "create a to-do list." It's tongue-in-cheek, but it's actually a very good tactic. You do want to include items on your to-do list that you absolutely will do no matter what. Crossing them off feels good, but more importantly, it forces you to look at your list anew and repeatedly. A looked-at list is a used list. I always like to build little tricks into my organisational systems that help ensure I actually use them. Putting tasks that you will actually do on your to-do list is one of them.

Other kinds of lists

Not everything that's important will fit on a to-do list. Keep other kinds of notes and diaries, too. You might have notes and more general lists for brainstorming, day dreaming, and planning, but don't confuse these with to-do lists. Keep your to-do lists focused on a goal, keep the tasks prioritised and short, and build in little tricks that make sure you refer to your list often to make it as effective as it can be.

Suggested apps

Here a few apps that are specifically designed to help you make and manage better to-do lists:

Any.do (iPhone, iPad, Android)

Awesome Note +To-do (iPhone, iPad, Galaxy Note 8.0)

iProcrastinate (Mac, iPhone, iPad)

Remember the Milk (web app, Android, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry 10)

Weave (iPhone, iPad)