5 Tips to Writing a To-Do List that Will Not Overwhelm You

How do you feel about the length of your to-do-list?

If you struggle to keep up with a long to-do-list, leaving you overwhelmed and intimidated, you might be doing it all wrong.

The purpose of a to-do list is to remind us of what needs to be done so that nothing important is missed. But oftentimes we put too many things in it that accomplishing everything becomes unrealistic.

Recently, I wrote eight items on my daily to-do-list. Out of these, I only finished four. The others were put off for another day.

I thought about the many times I made to-do lists. I can’t remember any where I checked off everything. Perhaps there were but I just couldn’t remember. What I do remember is that many times, one or more items in my to-do lists remained unchecked.

I wanted to figure out why there is always an item left unchecked.

Here’s what I’ve found out:

  1. My lists were long – longer than I could manage.
  2. The items that were unchecked were not that important; they could be put off for another day.
  3. The tasks I’ve accomplished were enough to call it a day.
  4. Some tasks needed more time than the others. Those that were left out were not done because I just had no more time to do them.
  5. There were a few tasks that I didn’t want to do. At the end of the day, usually they remain undone.

Sometimes my list looks daunting I get stressed already just by looking at it. (Please tell me I’m not the only one.)

I think there is no point sticking to a list that just adds to the stress of the day. Your to-do list should lighten you up and help you accomplish the day’s tasks, not wear you down.

So I decided to spice up my to-do list.

The secret?

Keep it simple, intentional and engaging!

And I came up with this!

Oh I’m so excited to share this to you!

Grab a blank copy for FREE when you join our newsletter, Simple Organizers. Then tell me what you think about it. I’d be glad to have some feedback to make it even more useful.

Now here are five tips to remember when preparing a better to-do list, a list that doesn’t overwhelm you.

  1. The URGENT and the IMPORTANT goes to your list. Leave the others.

Your time is precious, so you have to be intentional with what you do.  Limit your top priorities to only three.

Is there something you have been putting off because you don’t want to do it but it’s important?  Do not delay this task. Put it in your priority list and do it first before the others. This way, it will be finished at once and it doesn’t have to bother you for the rest of the day.

Do you have urgent matters to be attended to? Put it also in your Top Priorities list. But again, limit it to only three per day.  Better if you only have one urgent matter. Best if there is nothing urgent at all.

If there is nothing urgent, fill up your Top Priorities with the important tasks. Honestly, I feel much better when I know that my priorities are important and not urgent. I can easily get lost in the urgent. Many times I don’t enjoy doing it. I get stressed even by just the word urgent itself.

I discovered also that oftentimes, urgent is but an illusion. It’s just in your head. I’m not talking about emergency situations like when someone needs to be brought to the hospital. This is definitely urgent!

I’m talking about the deadlines that you create or others create for you. Like the article and the report that you need to submit. I mean who says it’s urgent? Did your boss just give it to you a while ago and you need to submit it tomorrow? What if you don’t? (This is usually the questions of Questioners and Rebel-type groups – learned this from Gretchen Rubin’s book on Habit. )

So let’s say you submit it the other day? Will there be a problem? If it’s really needed tomorrow, why was it given just today? If it’s that urgent, is it fine to put off the other things that you need to accomplish today?

I tried experimenting on something like this before. Our manager asked me to prepare a report for a client that he said was urgent and needed to be completed that day at once!

That day, there were some things I needed to attend to as well. So I was unable to do it immediately and I did not finish it. It was a long report.  I needed more time. So I submitted it the next day.

The result?

Well… the manager was disappointed with me for submitting it late. But the client was happy with the report!

I figured out the urgent was just in our manager’s head.

So just a little tip for your sanity: Consider if the urgent is really urgent. It could be important only. There is nothing wrong if you submit earlier than the deadline. But at least you know how it will best fit into your schedule, if it needs to be in your priority list nor not.

I know there are people who can work very well with the urgent. If it’s you, then cheers to that! I salute you! Coz it’s just not me. I find it really hard to work with the urgent. Drives me insane many times.

I sure can do well with what I consider important.

  1. Estimate how long each task will take and keep that in mind when you prepare your to-do list. You can even write it beside the task.

There’s an old quote that says, “People overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year.”

I find this very true even in how we make our to-do lists. We often overestimate what we can do in a day – we list a lot of things, too many that it becomes unrealistic, and it burns us out.

Naturally, you won’t be able to do all of them. At the end you feel frustrated because you think you failed in accomplishing your goals. But the truth is that you were able to do just as much. But you don’t see it because other tasks were not done. And that’s because your list is overkill.

  1. You don’t have to include the obvious but don’t turn it into a wish list either.

I got this tip from Fast Company. These are tasks like make breakfast, lunch, dinner; shower, wash the dishes, etc. These are tasks that you will normally do, those that are already part of your routine, those that you will automatically do without the need for a reminder.

Now because you are eliminating the obvious, it doesn’t mean that you just get to fill it up with every task that comes to your mind.  Don’t turn it into a wish list.

Your to-do list is not a place for the things you wish to do. It’s reserved for activities that you will ACTUALLY do.

So put those things into another list instead – your Wish List of course! (Oh I’m so good (smile). Transfer these activities to your to-do list only when you can already classify them as important, and when you have decided to finally do them.

  1. Create a weekly master list.

I learned this from Corey of Hey There Home.

Write all the things you need to accomplish each week. Then plot them on each day.

This is a great strategy to give you an overview of how you want your week to look like. This will then be the basis of your daily to-do list.

When I started this to-do list experiment, I had no weekly master list. I began with just the daily to-do list printable. It has worked well for me so far.

However, this is something worth trying!

  1. Add a little tweak.

Ahh yes… the fun part of the to-do list!

I used to write my to-do lists on just plain paper. I just list everything that needs to be done.  Then check each item once it’s done.  It’s that simple, but I have to admit, it does get pretty boring.

So I added a little tweak that makes my list a bit more engaging. I put sections, colors, an art corner and a simple question to ponder throughout the day.

Sections group the list into different contexts so the list doesn’t look crammed.

Colors – I realized they can help cheer up the day and make even the most mundane tasks doable, so it’s definitely a yes for colors!

The art corner – I provided a simple drawing that I saw in Microsoft Word where I can color it whenever I feel like it. I use crayons. But you can use color pencils and markers, whichever you see fit to make your list motivating and more fun!

And lastly, the question to ponder – It’s like a little reflection corner where you get to think for a little while. I’m planning to add more questions so that each day, you get a different question.

If you have any idea, feel free to leave a comment. It will be highly appreciated.


So that’s it!

I know that you will not always make it perfect.  There will be days when you will still fail to accomplish everything in your list. But tough days do come. So give yourself a little grace, don’t be too hard on yourself.

What’s important is that most of the time, you complete your to-do list, leaving you feel successful and satisfied when the day ends. And I hope I’ve helped you with that through this article.

Feel free to leave your comments. Your ideas are always welcome!

Oh and don’t forget your free copy of this to-do list! Just sign up to Simple Organizers and it will be mailed straightly in your Inbox.!

Cheers to a more productive day!


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2 thoughts on “5 Tips to Writing a To-Do List that Will Not Overwhelm You

  1. Hollie

    Questions you can use for your list. What did I do today to make someone smile? Who did I mention God to today? What did I do well today?

    1. Em Mendoza Post author

      Thanks for this Hollie! Will definitely include in a printable planner I’m making for 2021!


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