7 Expert-Approved Ways to Write a Better To-Do List

iStock.com/Cn0ra
iStock.com/Cn0ra

When feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks ahead of you, sit down, take a breath, and write a to-do list. This isn’t just a sneaky form of procrastination: Studies have shown that we’re more likely to achieve our goals when we commit them to paper. If you really want to make the most of your planning time, ditch the old-school bullet format. These expert-backed strategies will help you confront your deadlines with confidence.

1. TIME-BLOCKING

On a traditional to-do list, obligations that take hours to complete appear alongside tasks that last a few minutes. Without time-blocking, it can be hard to tell them apart. Fast Company defines time-blocking as assigning individual tasks to manageable time slots. So instead of writing out everything on your plate for the day and hoping you have enough time to tackle it all, this approach lets you set realistic goals for yourself one task at a time.

2. IF/THEN LISTS

To-do lists are inherently optimistic. By writing something down, you’re betting that you’ll have the time and energy to make it happen. But sometimes life gets in the way of your fine-tuned plans. One strategy for setting reasonable goals without selling yourself short is to make two lists: one for high-energy days and another for days when you struggle to roll out of bed. According to blogger and Bullet Journal enthusiast Kara Benz, both lists should follow an “if/then” model. An entry on the first list, for example, might read, “If I have a lot of energy, then I will take a walk at lunch.” The second list should feature more mindless tasks like cleaning out your inbox, organizing your desk, or even setting aside time for a power nap.

3. EISENHOWER MATRIX

Michele Debczak

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Someone found a way to turn this maddening statement into a rather useful prioritization system. Plugging your to-do list into an Eisenhower Matrix breaks it into four categories. The first box, filled with items that are both urgent and important, is to be tackled immediately. The second set, labeled important but not urgent, can be scheduled for a later time. Tasks deemed urgent but not important can be delegated to others if possible, and entries that are neither urgent nor important should be crossed off the list altogether.

4. DRAWING

Many people use their own special shorthand when writing to-do lists—which is fine as long as they can decipher it hours later. If you’ve ever had trouble decoding the notes you write to yourself, consider doodling quick images to get your message across. One study found that words are more likely to stick in our memories if we draw pictures of them instead of writing them down. This is likely because drawing takes up more mental facilities (visualization, analysis, motor skills) than language alone. So not only does creating a visual to-do list help you memorize tasks, it also forces you to think them through ahead of time.

5. ONE-THREE-FIVE LIST

Instead of organizing entries by time or urgency, a one-three-five list looks at the size of the tasks at hand. Start by identifying the biggest job of the day—that goes in the number one slot. From there, pick three smaller, but still important tasks to fill out the middle of your list. Finish it off with five small items you’ll be able to take care of quickly. COO and co-founder of The Muse Alex Cavoulacos is a notable fan of this method. She wrote for her website, “Planning ahead like this also means you'll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away—as well as the tools to re-prioritize your other work.” So while it may be impossible to stick with what’s on the list every day, it doesn’t hurt to have it as a guideline.

6. KANBAN BOARD

Jeff.lasovski via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Like a calendar, a Kanban board helps you keep your day organized by visualizing the tasks ahead. Kanban was popularized as a scheduling strategy for manufacturing plants, but as productivity experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry write in their book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, it works on an individual level as well.

Start by finding a board. It can be a tool on your computer, a white board covered in Post-its, or a few columns of index cards on your desk. The important thing to remember is that any task you write down won’t stay in the same spot for long. After filling out the three columns—"To-Do," "Doing," and "Done"—jump into the items in your “Doing” section. Any items you complete should be relocated to the "Done" column, and any items you start from the "To-Do" section should move to under "Doing." Ideally the board should be situated in a spot that’s easy to glance at throughout the day. That way you can easily visualize your progress.

7. COULD-DO LIST

Sam Bennett likes to be realistic when planning out her day. Instead of writing a to-do list, the author of Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes A Day takes the pressure off by creating a "could-do" list. In order to weigh the importance of her optional tasks, she plugs them into a worksheet. She suggests reserving columns for tasks, time (how long each task will take), expense (if any), inclination (how appealing the task is on a scale of one to 10), and the return on your investment (also scaled one to 10). Based on those metrics, it should be easy to see which items take priority—and if you don’t have time to get to everything, it’s not the end of the world.

This story originally ran in 2017.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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The U.S. Postal Service Is Struggling—Buying Stamps Can Help

Inclement weather doesn't stop them, but a lack of funding could.
Inclement weather doesn't stop them, but a lack of funding could.
Pope Moysuh, Unsplash

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, businesses have drastically reduced the number of advertisements and other marketing materials they’re sending to consumers—and since a considerable chunk of the U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) revenue comes from those large mailings, the ongoing crisis has put the organization in a tough spot.

The importance of keeping the USPS afloat goes beyond simply wanting to preserve something that’s been around since the dawn of U.S. history. As Lifehacker explains, the institution delivers mail to every single household in the nation—be it by truck, boat, or even mule—which makes it a critical method of circulating necessary documents like paychecks and voting ballots. Without the USPS, it would be difficult to reach rural residents who might not have consistent phone or internet service.

So, how can we help? The USPS doesn’t get any taxpayer funds, relying instead on the sale of stamps and various shipping supplies. In other words, the best way to put money into the pockets of our postal guardians is to stock up on stamps.

There are dozens of different designs listed on USPS’s online store, which makes this charitable endeavor an especially fun one. You can, for example, decorate your envelope with Sally Ride, Scooby-Doo, or celebrated broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill. There are plenty of fruits and flowers to choose from, too, and even a lovely illustration of Walt Whitman, complete with a very thick mustache and a very piercing gaze. And we’d be remiss not to mention the existence of this mail carrier dog costume, which only costs $18.

An American hero.USPS.com

If you’d like to go the extra mile, you can also sign a petition to save the USPS by texting “USPS” to the number 50409. A chat program called Resistbot will walk you through the steps to add your name, and it’ll even send an automated message to your senators, letting them know you’ve signed the petition and support the continued operation of the USPS. You will have to enter your name, email address, and residential address, but the whole process takes about two minutes.

[h/t Lifehacker]