Want To Be More Productive? Try Rearranging Your To-Do List

A simple trick to build a better to-do list and be more productive

This is an updated version of a post that appeared on this blog in November 2013. 

try this simple trick to be more productive!


Like most busy moms, I’m a list-maker. There is simply no way I could juggle the constant demands of work and family without putting pen to paper multiple times each day.

Write it down, cross it off, repeat.

Most of the time my list-making tendencies serve me well; they keep me calm by ensuring I don’t forget to schedule my son’s doctor appointment or submit that article by the deadline.

But every now and then, during particularly busy days or weeks, my lists become so impossibly long—overflowing with more tasks than any mortal could feasibly complete—that they themselves become a source of stress and anxiety.

I start tossing and turning at night over the fact that I didn’t have time to cross it all off. While that sometimes makes me more productive, other times it makes it impossible to see the forest through the trees and get to the tasks that matter most.

To prevent this from happening, I’ve started building better to-do lists. And by better, I mean prioritized.

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The key for me is dividing my list into columns so that I’m not just mentally prioritizing my tasks—I’m physically repositioning them as well in a clear, visual way. It’s a simple step that wards off the giant, totally unmanageable list that inevitably builds up if I let it.

Column A

Column A represents the mandatory. As in, the world will stop spinning if the items here are not taken care of today. (OK, maybe not, but there will definitely be major consequences in my life.) Baby is completely out of diapers? Absolutely have to get some. Client requested a follow-up call? Definitely must pick up the phone and dial.

There’s no compromising with Column A—I’m not hitting the hay for the night until every item is complete.

Column B

Then there’s Column B. The tasks listed here really should get done today, but if they don’t, life will go on relatively smoothly. Once the essentials from Column A are complete, I start striving to accomplish as much of Column B as possible.

Dad’s birthday is still a few days away, but it’d be great to pop his card in the mail today. I want to reply to that email soon, but it’s ok if it has to wait until the morning (or next week, as the case may be).

In an ideal world I’d complete Column B every day, but ideal worlds don’t exist—especially not once kids are in the picture. If my eyes start drooping before the last item is crossed off, I won’t lose sleep over it.

Column C

Ahhhhhh, Column C. Here I list the tasks that I hope to accomplish someday soon, but most likely not today. Maybe within the next week? The next month? Six months? Column C items are never pressing matters, but rather things that I’d like to do if and when I ever get a spare moment. Finish writing in the baby book? Wonderful! Organize the paperwork on my desk? That’d be great! Get a pedicure? Lovely!

Tackling Column C items would be helpful and fulfilling, but if time doesn’t allow for it, I don’t sweat it.

Column C can also provide some insight into the current pace of my life, and by extension, my mental and emotional state of being.

For example, if I go for a full week or two and notice that not a single Column C item has been completed, it’s a sign that I need to slow it down a bit, that the speed of my life might be starting to get out of hand.

It becomes a visual reminder that while of course I need to be taking care of the mandatory items, the little things—the things that are mostly for my peace of mind or personal interest—deserve some attention as well.

I’ve found that taking a mile-long to-do list and prioritizing it into Column A, B, and C provides an instant sense of calm. It reminds me that even though my plate is full—or, let’s be honest, I’m juggling six plates and they’re all piled sky high—I don’t have to get it all done today, this week, or this month.

Focusing on just one column at a time puts the emphasis on the tasks that matter most on any given day, allowing me to feel accomplished instead of constantly behind. 

I’m guessing you’re a list-maker too. Do you ever find that your list gets so long it itself becomes a source of stress?

image via aafjevandehulsbeek

26 responses to “Want To Be More Productive? Try Rearranging Your To-Do List”

  1. Good idea! I thrive on to-do lists too, and this should make things more doable. There’s such a gap between what we want to accomplish and what we actually have time to!

  2. The first two things on my lists are: thank you and breathe.

    I prioritize naturally, but sometimes the thoughts just need to come out. Sometimes I’ll make a priority key, other times no.

    I trust myself to know what needs to be done and to be flexible with life to make it happen successfully.

    • I just love the first two things on your lists, Wendy. Reminders of a beautiful way to start the day…. thank you and breathe. I remember during one of the most difficult times of my life I had a yellow sticky that said two things…. just breathe…and one moment at a time. If I could remember those two things, I considered my day a success.

    • I can totally see how that would happen! I keep mine in a spiral notebook that I cart along with me everywhere I go. Then each evening, I write a new list and rip out the old one.

  3. I love this! I need to get better at prioritizing. When I start to feel overwhelmed with my to-do list, I add things like “Wake up” and “Be awesome” to my list… That way I can cross something off already… There’s just something about crossing things off that gives me a jump start! Or I’m just really weird… haha!

  4. I looooove my To Do lists because they make me feel productive. But the list does tend to grow faster than I would like at times, so I will have to try breaking my list down into three columns. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Yes! If I don’t make a list every day, nothing that I NEED to get done gets done. Or I feel like I just didn’t get anything done at all. I like your columns. I have basically taken Column C and made it into a separate list. I laminated a “Projects/To-Do” list and put it on my fridge. When I think of things that need to be done (like re-drilling the towel hooks back into the wall in the bathroom that the kids pulled out) I put those on that list. In dry erase marker. As I can, I cross them off the list. The Power of Moms has some really great organization ideas as well to help with reducing the stress of the Task List. Loved this post Katie!

  6. This is a great idea. My list has never gotten that long, probably because the items in my C column never wind up on an actual list. 😉 Perhaps if I had them written down, they’d get done one of these days!

  7. My lists stress me out completely! However, there is something very satisfying in crossing things off. I so something kind of similar as I try to put the “must do’s” at the top and things decrease in necessity toward the bottom.

  8. Big-time list maker here. And sometimes.. they’re just too long to even breathe through.
    I do have a Column C, and every now and then I’ll go on a Column C binge!

  9. I have a very similar system. It always feels good when you go to the someday list and take action on an item. Like you were extra effective or something.

  10. Good tip to organize by priority because that’s what we really need to focus on, the important things. Though often it’s those mundane things that just need to get done too. I’m definitely a list-maker and I like to organize by category.

    • Yeah, I like to have a mix of the big projects and little mundane stuff. You definitely need a few quick tasks that you can just check off quickly and easily.

  11. Absolutely! I do the prioritizing in my head, but I think the visual aid of separating into columns would be helpful. And when I have a larger project, I create a list just for that, so I can easily see everything I need to get done.

  12. I’m an avid list maker and planner addict. I’ve recently discovered bullet journaling which really helps me keep tasks and to do list in one simple notebook. I like the columns idea for prioritizing tasks. Thanks for sharing!

  13. lists for shopping especially are my favored list above all others. problem is, it usually gets left on the counter when I walk out the door. it’s not all bad tho, because when I get to the store, because I’d written it down, I tend to remember items much easier and only occasionally does something need a 2nd trip.

  14. sorry about the misspelling and poor English – brain goes faster than fingers can anymore. I forgot to say it was food lists for the grocery store. I’m an adventurous cook, hence looking for odd items. no list or memory means a change in what to serve! thanx for your inspiration blog – something we can all use!

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