To-do lists…you’ve probably had one at some point in your life. They’re supposed to help you organize tasks that you need to do. The issue is that they don’t always work. Once you make a list, where do you start? Do you find them to be helpful? Or, is it overwhelming to see all that you need to do?

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably used a to-do list. However, it’s estimated that around 85% of people ineffectively use them. While it is thought to help you organize tasks that you need to complete, the most common purpose that it serves is as a way for people to measure their self-worth. This is a problem for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that in trying to get through the list, we realize there is no end because things are constantly being added. This results in us being unable to check everything off, making us feel like we’re not productive, and usually leaves us overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed. If you have work tasks mixed with personal tasks on your to-do list, then it can be especially confusing.

If this is how you, like so many others, use to-do lists, then you’re setting yourself up for failure and frustration. There are several factors at play, but one of the main ones is that to-do lists are quite simply just that, lists. They don’t provide context for the tasks on it to help you prioritize what you should work on, how long each task will take, and how much time you have available. If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you won’t get much done. In addition, it’s hard to complete tasks on a to-do list because people often don’t factor time in for distractions and unforeseen events.

Despite the trouble that to-do lists can cause, humans love them for several reasons. They help to reduce our anxiety about the chaos of life by giving us structure, or a plan. Also, they’re a way to show that we’ve achieved something that day, week or month. One unique thing about our brains is that they’re wired to remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done because, after a task, our brain is ready to let it go.

Just making a to-do list can have positive impacts. Think of it this way, when you’re in a lecture or meeting and you take notes, you need to filter external information and summarize it in your head before writing it down. Several studies have indicated that taking notes helps us to extract the important information we hear or see and remember it better than we would if we just heard or read it. When you write a to-do list, it’s a similar mental experience. This is why it’s easy to remember what’s on your to-do list even when you aren’t looking at it.

Personality has much to do with whether or not someone uses and benefits from having a to-do list. According to personality psychologists, the opposite personality trait of procrastination is conscientiousness. It’s considered one of the five major super traits in personality. Conscientious individuals are usually self-disciplined, dutiful, organized, and not impulsive. So, more conscientious people use to-do lists more naturally and effectively. Interestingly, there is a gap between genders as well. Not only do women create to-do lists more often than men, but their lists are more structured, organized, and detailed. They also create lists more routinely.

There are many advantages to working from a to-do list, such as having clarity on what you need to get done since all of the items you need to do are in one place and out of your mind, which helps you to feel less stressed. This can make it easier not to overlook or forget anything. By using to-do lists, you tend to feel more organized. When making a to-do list, there are several things to consider to make it more beneficial than harmful.

When the number of choices we have available increases, we have upsurges in our negative emotions because our sense of opportunity cost increases. Several studies have shown that the human brain gets overwhelmed when it sees a list of 7 or 8 options. When it sees this, it wants to shut down. A way to deal with this when creating to-do lists is to form different lists, like home, personal goals, and work. Then, place the items you need to tackle into these different categories. The key is to not have more than 7 or 8 tasks on each one. The best lists have no more than three items per category. These should be the big, tough tasks that you need to get done that day.

Remember that if you finish your list, you can work on other things or take some time to relax.

One thing for certain is that your to-do list must be clear. If any items can’t be listed as an action, they shouldn’t be on the list. This includes any tasks that are vague or multi-step. Be sure to use more detail than you think you’ll need. This is important because later in the day when you’re tired, you’re more likely not to remember what something is if there isn’t enough detail.

Another important consideration to include on the list besides the task is how long it will take you to complete it. This will help you plan more accurately. If you aren’t sure exactly how long, try to estimate a realistic timeframe to the best of your ability. Estimating how long it takes to do a task is something that many people find challenging. One study found that only 17% of people can correctly estimate how long something will take. Most of the time, we optimistically assume that tasks will take less time than they do. The good news is that you can practice this every day by approximating how long it will take to do a task and then comparing this to the actual time it took. The more you practice, the more precise you’ll get.

You need to create a workable timetable for the day. So, be sure to allow time for distractions, like social media, and interruptions, such as needing to eat because you’re hungry. It’s crucial to take breaks throughout the day to recharge and re-energize. The best way to do this is by working on tasks in 50 to 90-minute work blocks. According to research, the most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break.

One golden rule is not to schedule more than 75% of your time. A key element of this is to make yourself and your goals your primary focus. You must be able to set boundaries, whether it’s at home or work. If you’re at work and have a co-worker who is constantly asking for your help with projects that are, more often than not, time-consuming and don’t benefit you, you need to find a way to decline politely.

To-do lists can place you in the mindset that everything that you have to do must go on the list without taking into account the value it provides to your day or goal. In many cases, this results in you placing greater emphasis on tasks that, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t that important. This is why it’s vital to prioritize. It’s a good idea to divide your tasks into four categories:

  • Important and urgent
  • Not urgent, but important
  • Not important, but urgent
  • Not important or urgent

You’ll probably need to work on tasks that are urgent and important. It’s essential to also work on tasks that are important and not urgent since, typically, these tasks are related to your long-term goals. Also, if you only ever work on tasks that are urgent and important, it’s going to feel like you spend your days putting out fires, and you’ll end up neglecting other important areas. When considering the four prioritization categories, most of your time should be spent on these two categories.

However, it’s key to do tasks that are lesser priority sometimes to prevent them from becoming a higher priority item, such as having regular car maintenance done instead of needing to get your car fixed because it broke down.

A key element of having a to-do list is that you review it regularly. This helps you ensure you’re completing items and staying on task. Sometimes, when doing this, you’ll find that you need to shift the priority of items to meet a change in the timeline of when they should be accomplished.

The timing of when you make your list is important too. You should write your to-do list for each day the night before because this lets you start your day with clarity since you’ll know exactly which item you need to complete by 10 AM the next morning. It’s critical to tackle the biggest, most important task first thing in the morning when you are fresh and before you move on to anything else. You should do this even before you check your email.

It’s much better to be proactive instead of reactive. If you’re at work, you can do this by making your status “busy” on any internal chats, having your phone go straight to voicemail, and adjusting your email settings so you’re only alerted when specific people message you. You can also do this with your cellphone when you’re focused on completing tasks at home.

Sometimes, even with a list, your mind keeps thinking about all the other things you need to do. If this is the case, then do a mind dump by taking five minutes to write down every single thing you can think of that you need to do in the next week, whether it’s personal or professional. Once five minutes have passed, stop writing and put that list away. Remember, this isn’t your to-do list, but a data dump.

Also, sometimes a small to-do item becomes a huge energy suck because you’ve put it off for so long that it bothers you. When this happens, this item should become one of the most important things for you to do that day because this will allow you to release all the anxiety you have built up around it not being done that is preventing you from moving forward with anything else.

One thing to watch out for is that to-do lists can allow us to avoid the most important tasks of the day because many people use them unknowingly to avoid doing the things they don’t want to do. This is unfortunate since the things we don’t want to do tend to be the things we need to be doing. The reason for this is that we’re avoiding certain tasks because they seem overwhelming, and we don’t know where to start. So, to feel good about themselves, people complete easy, low-impact tasks. The best way to make these larger tasks less vast is to break them down into smaller steps. These should be a coherent set of concrete actions you can take on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to achieve your goal.

When we don’t get things on our to-do lists, it has a negative impact on our bodies. Even if you think about an unaccomplished task, it drains your energy. This negative thought pattern holds you back and makes you less productive. This then perpetuates a cycle of not getting a task done, feeling negatively about the incompletion of the task, and not accomplishing other tasks because of your negative feelings.

If to-do lists work well for you, keep doing them. However, if they don’t work for you, there are other things that can try. Instead of having a to-do list, some experts recommend using a success list. This type of list is intentionally created to produce extraordinary results. With this type of list, you don’t write down several tasks that you need to do each day, but choose one thing that will deliver the most impact and you must get done.

Initially, this concept seems a bit abstract, but executing it is simple. All you need to do is to think about the one thing you can accomplish today that would have the most impact. If you’re having trouble coming up with something, it’s usually the thing that you want to do the least. Once you come up with the item, write it on a sticky note and put it somewhere you can see it, and start working. When you feel your mind wander, stop, look at your note, and refocus on the task you’re trying to accomplish. If you finish your task, you can always focus on other lower-priority tasks.

Another alternative is living in your calendar. Many ultra-productive people follow this strategy. When you do this, you take tasks from your to-do list, estimate how long they will take, and transfer them to your calendar. This helps you to have a better understanding of the time commitments you have to deal with and around. There are several key elements to use when managing your life using your calendar.

The first is to make the default event duration in your calendar set for only 15 minutes. When you do this, you’ll discover you can fit more tasks into each day. This will allow you to spend only as much time as is necessary for each task.

The second thing you must do is to block time for the most important things in your life before anything else. It’s essential not to fill up your calendar by accepting every request that comes your way. Instead, figure out your life and career priorities and then pre-schedule blocks of time for these items. This also means that you should leave space for things, such as exercise, date night, or other important items.

The third consideration when living out of your calendar is to schedule everything. The thought behind this is that if it’s scheduled, then it gets done. To do this, try to plan your must-do activities a few weeks ahead. This will allow you to guarantee time for the crucial tasks for achieving your long-term goals. Also, don’t forget to leave a couple of hours a day to do menial tasks and deal with the inevitable events that will pop up. Essentially, you’re making a production plan for your work.

It can feel as though there is never enough time to meet all the demands that are placed upon you each day. However, there are things that you can do to make it easier for yourself. To-do lists can be effective if you use them correctly, but not all people benefit from using them. If you’re one of these people, you might want to try a success list or living in your calendar. It doesn’t matter which technique you use. The goal with any of these is to help you be productive while decreasing your stress.