How to make your to-do list work for you, according to an expert

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Are you feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by your job while WFH? Here’s why using a to-do list to organise your time could make things easier.

One of the most stressful parts of any job is staying organised.

Getting organised is one thing, but when you’re trying to juggle a variety of responsibilities, attend numerous meetings and stay sane while doing so, staying organised can often feel like fighting a losing battle.

However, just because staying on top of everything isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. And that’s where the humble to-do list comes in. 

It may not feel like the most hi-tech way of staying organised, but there’s a reason why the to-do list remains such a highly-used organisational tool – not only are to-do lists an easy way to prioritise work and break down bigger tasks into bitesize chunks, they’re also incredibly versatile and can be adapted depending on how you work best. 

In this way, to-do lists aren’t just a way to help you get organised – they also have the potential to reduce your stress levels (by helping you to feel more in control of your work) and help you to become more productive

A woman writing a to-do list
How to make your to-do list work for you.

Indeed, as Carina Lawson, a time management coach and founder of Ponderlily Planners and Journals, tells Stylist, using a to-do list to stay organised can help you to identify your ‘action items’ (aka, the individual tasks you need to complete) and is a sure-fire way to help you free up mental space and feel more accomplished in the long run.

“Lists allow you to organise your thoughts so your action items are out of your head and onto paper,” she explains. “They allow you to know what to work on next and crossing things off a list when accomplished can make you feel more productive.”

She continues: “Once your action items are on paper, it frees up mental space and that in itself can reduce stress levels. It declutters your mind and you can be empowered in the knowledge that you know what to do next.”

As well as helping to reduce our stress levels (something many of us are struggling to do now we’re working from home), Lawson says that to-do lists can also help us to visualise our workload and set boundaries if we’re feeling overwhelmed.

She explains: “Making lists can improve focus on what exactly you should be working on next – once your thoughts are down on paper, lists can be a great tool to allow you to determine your priorities and bandwidth.

“That is a huge benefit should you need to communicate your boundaries, have a clear plan on what to tackle first, and/or see which tasks could be delegated to someone else.”

With all this being said, if you want to use to-do lists to help you stay organised, it’s important to find a system which works for you. Indeed, while making a basic to-do list is as simple as writing down all your outstanding tasks, there are a number of different formats and systems you can implement to help your to-do list work for you.

The five types of to-do list (and how to identify which one is right for you)

Not sure where to start when it comes to using a to-do list to get organised? We asked Lawson to talk us through the different types of to-do list – here’s what she had to say.

The master to-do list: basically, the no-frills, basic version you or I might imagine when we hear the words ‘to-do list’. People best suited to a master-to list are those who want to have everything all in one place, “capturing all items they need to get done in no particular order,” Lawson explains.

The prioritised to-do list: let’s call this one the master to-do list plus. To create a prioritised to-do list, Lawson says, simply “assign each task a number in order of importance”. A prioritised to-do list might be a good idea if you struggle to get everything done by the end of the day, as it’ll help you to get the most important tasks done first.

A to-do list
There are many different types of to-do lists to choose from depending on what you want to use it for.

The scheduled to-do list: if you tend to pick up tasks on an ad-hoc basis throughout the day, the scheduled to-do list could help you to get things done more efficiently. As Lawson explains, this type of list “allows you to group tasks in order of the length of time it may take you to accomplish each task,” so you tackle the quickest tasks first if you’ve got a spare 15 minutes, for example.

The categorised to-do list: if you’re looking for an organisational system that’ll help you keep track of all areas of your life, then the categorised to-do list may be for you. To create a categorised to-do list, Lawson suggests drawing a quadrant and grouping items “depending on location (e.g. supermarket, work, home) or life area (e.g. personal, professional, academic)”.

The for-later to-do list: having a for-later to-do list is a good idea if you tend to have lots of ideas and projects on the go at one time. It’s basically a master to-do list, but for things you want future-you to remember. “The for-later to-do list allows you to park all your grand ideas without interfering with current projects you have happening currently,” Lawson says. 

To find out more about your unique planning personality that influences your approach to goal-setting and your ability to get stuff done, take this 2-minute quiz and gain an understanding of how to become more effective while remaining focused on the things that matter most to you.

If working from home is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues to the stress of trying to communicate via technology, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including to anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of WFH wellbeing.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.