5 Practical Steps to Mastering Your To-Do List

March 09, 2017

5 Practical Steps to Mastering Your To-Do List

Imagine it’s midday. You’ve had a great day so far, being productive and ticking things off your to-do list. In fact, you’ve achieved so much more than you set out to, meaning you’ve got time to grab a coffee and flick through the latest gossip mag. You tackle each task without a feeling of stress and overwhelm. This task? Easy. This list there? DONE. You’re a superstar. A mega-productive superhero. Pat on the back. Perhaps I’ve got a special gift, you think...

No? Doesn’t feel like you?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed on a daily basis, with the amount of tasks, activities, and chores you either take on or are required to do. Just looking at your to-do list of 50-something tasks, realising it’s 3pm and you’ll never get everything done can be paralysing and chaotic to say the least. Even more, if you’re like me, you probably get a lot done - but never the right things! You get caught up in your email inbox (or social media), responding to urgent phone calls, or reacting to one thing after the other. You might feel that you never get to the truly life-changing stuff - such as strategising, planning ahead, and growing your skills.

If you feel like you’re living day to day - without great thought or structure - this article is for you. From me to you. I’ll run through my own 5 steps to mastering my to-do list. It’s easy, don’t worry. You’ve got this.

Step 1: Use the magic word

This is the one thing that have made the world of difference to me, personally. Begin each task with a verb. It’s that simple! When you start a task with a verb, it’s immediately geared towards a specific action. This, in turn, helps you TAKE action.

Let’s look at an example.

“Dinner”. Huh? What does that mean? Go out for dinner? Research dinner recipes? Make dinner? Feed your dog dinner?

Instead, add a verb in front to clarify specifically what you need to get done, and add relevant detail. Such as, “Prepare dinner for the family”. Much easier to understand - and therefore get DONE.

Step 2: Break it down

You’re probably guilty of this - I know I am. No judgement. You probably compose your tasks at a high level, writing out really big tasks, without outlining the steps you need to take to get there. They then stay on your to-do list for ages. And whilst you might be making progress, chipping away, you never complete the whole thing. This can feel very discouraging and unproductive.

For example. “Write a business plan”. That’s MASSIVE. A whole lotta work goes into writing a business plan, and if you see this on your to-do list, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and paralysed. You might think - where do I start? What do I need to do?

Instead, break each task down into the smallest possible sub-tasks. Here’s a great technique that I use. Let’s demonstrate with our business plan example.

Ask yourself: what’s the first step?
“Research business plan examples”
What’s the next step?
“Write a document outline”
And, what’s the next step?
“Write my business objectives”
And so on.

You can then schedule each sub-task and feel more productive as you tick each item off. Can you see how much more clear and achievable this feels?

Step 3: The must-have matrix

Once you’ve got a long list of clear tasks, you need to prioritise. If you have 26 things to do today - this is a must for you. There’s very little chance you’ll work on the right things at the right time.

Grab a piece of paper and draw a matrix of 2x2 (meaning 4 squares). The horizontal axis should read low importance to high importance, and the vertical axis low urgency to high urgency. Then, label each quadrant like the list below - take a look at my quick draw-up for a visual.

1: Urgent and Important
2: Not Urgent but Important
3: Urgent but Not Important
4: Not Urgent and Not Important


Up & Atem Prioritisation Matrix Important Urgent


Grab your tasks for today and start plotting. An example of something that’s urgent is that it demands your attention NOW regardless of how vital it. For example, your email inbox is full or you get social media notifications. An example of something important is a task that will add value to you or others - such as spending time with your family, or getting that exercise in. As humans, we tend to deal with anything urgent - and neglect what’s truly important in life.

Begin with prioritising all tasks in quadrant 1, followed by 2 and so forth. Some tasks in quadrant 3 might demand your attention - try to ignore them if you can! 

Step 4: The rule of five

I like to keep a digital master to-do list, meaning an extensive and organised way to plan projects, tasks and sub-tasks for now and months ahead. This is my ‘task library’ that I add everything into. It includes reoccuring tasks, one-off things to remember, and bigger projects broken down into tasks and sub-tasks.

However, on a daily basis, it’s confusing and overwhelming to work off such an extensive list. Just looking at it makes me want to crawl into bed with a bucket of ice cream.

What I do instead is transfer tasks from my master to-do list to a notepad every day. And, this is the secret: I transfer only five tasks. Yep, only five. But, Sara, I’ve got so much more to do than that! How can I choose only five?

Think about it this way.

You’ll start with one task at a time anyway, before moving onto the next. Tackling your five most prioritised tasks means you will be more focused and get more done. Once complete, you can move onto the next five.

Try this. Following the matrix exercise, grab a notepad, notebook or any piece of paper. Select five tasks, starting in quadrant 1. If you haven’t filled your quota of five, move on to quadrant 2 (and potentially 3 if there’s something truly urgent that won’t go away). Then, get to work on your five tasks and only add more once complete. Easy, right? You’ll feel laser focused and productive.

Step 5: Only under 15

You probably won’t like this last step. I know I don’t, but I try my best to adhere anyway, because it’s revolutionising. Here’s the general rule.

Any task that takes more than 15 minutes to complete, needs to be scheduled.

That’s right. Any and all tasks that will take you more than 15 minutes to complete, need to move from your to-do list to you calendar. Make an appointment with yourself, and set aside time to work.

Consider this scenario. You work full time, and have a list of things you want to achieve in the evening. These include exercise (30 minutes), cook and eat dinner (45 minutes), hang laundry (15 minutes), tidy up the house (30 minutes), read a book (30 minutes), sort through your emails (45 minutes)... and so on. All these tasks add up, and can result in several hours of tasks and chores. If you only have 4 hours to complete them, you need to estimate how long each will take. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to fail!

Being a time optimist won't make you more time efficient.

Try allocating estimates times to all your tasks, either directly into your master to-do list, in your matrix, or in your top 5. Anything you estimate that'll take more than 15 minutes to complete, you pop into your calendar or planner. Then, make sure you have enough time to achieve everything that you’d like to.


Hope you found these 5 steps useful! These are the steps I follow every day, to make sure I set myself up for success without feeling overwhelmed or paralysed. If you found this useful, please share with your friends. And, tell me the one step that surprised you the most in the comments field below.





1 Response

Jessamin Jensen
Jessamin Jensen

April 11, 2017

Thanks so much for this list! I love the must-have matrix. So useful! Thanks so much for sharing!

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