A Better Way to Create Your To-Do List

If you’re creating to-do lists but still aren’t accomplishing as much as you’d hoped each day, this post can help identify the problem and provide a better way to create your to-do list!

Woman sitting on a couch holding a binder with a to-do list

I love lists. Love them. They help me get ideas out of my brain and down on paper. They help me stay on track and not get distracted. And they’re really great for helping my scatterbrained self not forget anything important!

To-do lists have always been a staple for me. I’d make them in my paper planner, in a notebook, with post-it notes, or even in the notes app on my phone. And I relied on my to-do lists to make sure I completed certain tasks throughout the day. (Nothing is better than getting to check something off the list, right?!)

But even with consistently making daily to-do lists, I often still felt scattered. I would get frustrated because I was trying to be intentional about using my time well. But I still felt overwhelmed and wasn’t accomplishing as much as I wanted.

A New Way to Approach My To-Do List

If I was going to get my tasks under control and truly accomplish the things that mean the most to me in my days, I knew I had to change my approach to my to-do list. And I did.

I’m thrilled to say that my new system allowed me to follow through in many important areas in the past year like…

  • Revamping my entire website and updating a large percentage of the posts
  • Starting a second website and ramping up the pageviews to thousands per month
  • Reading more than 100 books
  • Maintaining a consistent workout program
  • Putting in volunteer hours with my son’s hockey team, my kids’ schools, and our church
  • Building stronger relationships with family and friends
  • And more!

But there is no way I could have balanced all of these different areas of my life without a system to make it happen.

The Problems with Traditional To-Do Lists

Before I could jump into a new system, I had to figure out what wasn’t working for me. I started thinking about the process of creating a daily to-do list. I realized that there were quite a few problems that I would need to deal with if I wanted to be the most effective with my time.

Problem: My to-do list focused on the urgent but not the important.

I realized that traditional to-do lists– and the lists that I was making– include a lot of “urgent” tasks that we need to complete soon, but they often overlook our bigger, more long-term goals.

If I’m simply waking up each day and trying to think of all the deadlines I need to meet soon or the items that are already built into my schedule for the day, my focus is only on the short-term. I’m not taking active steps toward the big things I want to accomplish in my life.

So for example, my daily to-do list would often look something like this:

  • Answer emails.
  • Write a blog post.
  • Take photos for next blog post.
  • Fold laundry and put it away.
  • Take Connor to hockey practice.
  • Remind the boys to write thank you notes for gifts.
  • Start on goodie bags for Con’s team.
Binder on Kitchen Counter with To-Do List Page

Yes, all of these were tasks that I needed to complete. But they were also pretty short-sighted. I didn’t do a great job of looking at the big picture. And I wasn’t consistently incorporating steps toward my long-term goals into my day.

What’s more, since my to-do list only focused on the things that felt like they needed to be completed ASAP, I would often drop the ball on other responsibilities because they just weren’t top of mind at that moment.

  • I didn’t have a specific spot for keeping track of house projects, so I let things go way too long.
  • My kids are a top priority in my life. But without an intentional plan of things I want to do with them or memories I want us to make, we just default to our day-to-day routines. (And we’d spend way too much time on our devices.)
  • I wouldn’t think ahead to future events, like traveling for vacation. So I would get to the day before and realize there were a bunch of items I needed, necessitating last minute errands and extra stress.

I needed a way to plan for and work toward things I wanted to accomplish long-term, while still managing day-to-day tasks.

Problem: My to-do list didn’t have a great mechanism for managing tasks that I wanted to complete sometime in the future.

Another issue with my to-do list was that I didn’t have a way to schedule out or implement future tasks. If, for example, I needed to send in treats for Caleb’s class in two weeks, I didn’t have a great system for making sure I followed through with it down the road.

If I was using a paper planner, I could write it in on a future date. But I didn’t have a way to keep it top of mind leading up to that point or to plan ahead for it.

Mom and son sitting in a sunroom

I also didn’t have anywhere to store those random tasks that I’d remember when I was in the middle of something. Let’s say I was out running errands and remembered that I wanted to call and schedule Connor’s well check. Since I didn’t have my planner with me, I didn’t have a consistent place to put those reminders so I could follow up on them later.

Problem: My to-do list wasn’t very nimble.

This probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to you, but I like things neat and tidy. It would bother me then, that in order to reconfigure my to-do list, I would have to scratch things out and move them around.

Or if the day ended and I didn’t accomplish everything on my list, I would have to re-write all of my tasks for the next day, taking up time.

Woman fixing the curtains in a guest bedroom

My random lists also didn’t give me any built-in accountability or deadlines. My scatterbrained tendencies mean that I need a lot of reminders, and I didn’t have a great way to do that.

And if there were projects that I was working on with Donnie, I didn’t have a great way to collaborate and share my list with him.

So while I still loved my lists and relied on them heavily, they had some major shortfalls. I knew I could do better.

A Better Solution for Organizing My To-Dos

What I needed was a way to manage all of my different areas of responsibility in one place. Kids’ stuff. Blog stuff. Home stuff. Hobby stuff. All the stuff!

Our lives are multi-faceted, and we’re always balancing a lot. I needed a central location where I could manage it all, set deadlines and reminders, collaborate with others if needed, and move things around easily.

Thankfully, I have a very smart husband, and he had the perfect solution for me! He introduced me to task management apps.

Woman in Home office Looking at a Phone

Solution: A task management app can organize all of my areas of responsibility in one place.

If you’ve never used one, a task management app is like a super charged to-do list. Four of our favorite task management apps are Things, TickTick, ToDoist, and Evernote.

TickTick, Things, ToDoist, Evernote

Currently, Donnie and I both use ToDoist for managing my tasks and Evernote for managing documents. You can figure out which of the apps is best for you by requesting our quick guide via the button below!

With my task manager, I can easily make lists of things I want to get done today. But I can also keep track of future tasks in an organized way.

For example, I have a section in my task manager for business responsibilities, a section for personal responsibilities, and a section for tasks related to my kids.

Within each of those sections, I have various projects. In the business section, I have projects for this blog and for our sister site, Free Organizing Printables. In the personal section, some of the projects I have are “Home,” “Health,” and “Relationships.” And I have a project for each of my boys as well.

List of Responsibilities and Projects in the ToDoist app

These projects all correspond with goals I have or areas of my life that are important to me. So I can always keep track of the next steps I need to take in each one.

And with these neat and tidy categories already set out for me, any time I have an idea, a task I want to complete, or something I may want to pursue in the future, I can quickly and easily drop it into its relevant project so I don’t lose it.

I may act on that task this week, this month, or further down the line in the future. But I don’t forget about it because I have an organized central location to keep all of my important to-dos.

To-Dos in Task Management App

Solution: Task managers have built-in accountability and reminders.

Have I mentioned that I’m pretty scatterbrained? I’m pretty scatterbrained. And because of this, I rely pretty heavily on reminders and alerts that pop up on my phone so I don’t forget anything important.

I have this capability on my calendar, of course, but calendars are for events. If I put reminders for all of my tasks in my calendar, it would get overwhelming and confusing. Calendars are just not set up to work that way.

My tasks and to-dos go in my task manager, and I have the ability set reminders there quickly and easily.

Not only can I set one-time reminders, but I can have reminders that are automatically recurring. If our trash and recycling need to go out to the street each Tuesday, for example, I can set up a recurring task one time, and it will remind me every single week.

Take Out the Trash, Recurring Task with Reminder in ToDoist

Reminders give me built-in accountability and ensure that I’m not forgetting anything important.

Solution: Task managers are extremely nimble, making it easy to reorganize and prioritize my tasks.

Remember my pet peeve about scratching things out and having a messy to-do list? I never run into that problem with my task management app!

And what’s more, since it’s easy to drag and drop and reorder my tasks, I can easily change my setup anytime I need to.

For example, I initially set up my “Home” project with three categories: Decorating, Organizing, and Maintenance. After living with that setup for a while, I realized that it actually made more sense to my brain to organize that project by room. This allowed me to see what needed to be done in each space easily. After a few short minutes of dragging and dropping, I was able to reorganize my tasks by room so they made more sense for me.

Home Tasks Organized by Room in a Task Management App

Why I Resisted Using a Task Management App for So Long

I may be all-in on task management apps now, but that wasn’t always the case. I had three main reasons why I resisted, and I bet many people can relate…

But I like paper and pencil!

I have always been a pencil and paper girl. Physically writing things down helps get my ideas flowing and my brain moving. I love printables and cute lists and organizing my thoughts.

But, as I mentioned above, I ran into limitations and complications when I tried to use a straight paper and pencil method. And it was costing me time and causing frustration. So I had to find another way.

I still create paper lists and use printables to initially organize my ideas sometimes. But then I simply transfer any long-term tasks or future ideas to my task management app for implementation.

Desk with Laptop Computer and File with Note Cards

Using a task management app doesn’t mean that we have to ditch paper altogether. It just gives us a central location to house all of our tasks and ideas, even if it’s helpful to sketch them out on paper first.

But I’ve tried apps before. They don’t work for me.

I resisted task management apps for so long that it was kind of a running joke with Donnie and me. He would try to get me to use one app. I’d try it for a little bit, then give up. Then he’d suggest another one. I’d try it briefly, then I’d let it fall by the wayside.

I was convinced that I was a paper person and I just couldn’t get the hang of the digital thing. In a way, I was right. I was a paper person because that is what I had always done.

The task management apps “didn’t work for me” because I would never stick with them long enough for them to become a habit, part of my daily routine.

When life gets busy (which, let’s be honest, is often), we will automatically revert back to the habits we’ve had for a while. For me, this habit was paper, even though I recognized that it had some pretty significant limitations.

But when I fully committed to using the task management app, made it a regular part of my day, and stuck with it over a longer period of time, it became a habit.

Woman Sitting on Bed in Beautiful Bedroom

Now, whenever I think of a task I want to do, either soon or in the future, I pull out my phone and type it into my app instead of searching around for the nearest napkin or post-it note.

Whenever I’m trying to decide which tasks I should be working on for the day, I can easily pull up my app and see exactly what I have prioritized next.

Or when I think of some future ideas for things to try in our business or activities I want to do with our family, I already have an organized central location where I can record them.

But task management apps seem so complicated!

The last reason I resisted task management apps for so long was that they seemed complicated. A plain paper list or even a list in the notes app on my phone seemed simpler and more straightforward.

But just because I only have a few tasks written on my to-do list, doesn’t mean there’s not all sorts of other to-dos out there that I should be keeping track of in order to help my life run more smoothly. Those tasks are just off my radar completely since they’re not on my list, which could cause me to miss something important.

What gets complicated is trying to remember everything I should be doing when I don’t have a mechanism in place for keeping track of tasks in many different areas of my life.

What gets complicated is forgetting things because I don’t have them written down on my list on that particular day, and I don’t have a way to remind myself that they need to be done.

And what gets complicated is the frustration of never making progress toward my big, important goals because I only ever work on the tasks that feel urgent.

Desk with a laptop and cell phone

Using a task management app isn’t actually complicated at all. We just need a solid system for making the most of it!

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A Better Way to Create Your To-Do List

Thanks so much for following along! Have a wonderful week!

Abby Lawson at Abby Organizes, justagirlandherblog.com


  1. I’ve tried To-Doist and run into one key issue – alerts from all of the other apps, so I end up getting sidetracked by my phone alerts (mostly for work things) and sucked into the vortex. I wish there was a way to print out to-doist so I could keep my phone out of the picture when I want to be doing deep work. Any ideas?

    1. Abby Lawson says:

      There are a couple directions you could go. Phones all have alert settings that can be changed, so you could edit those so that less alerts are popping up. Apple products have a “focus” feature where you can really customize the alert settings to make sure no notifications, calls, alerts, emails, etc. come through at certain times each day. I have a profile set up for work so during certain hours the only notifications I get are from Donnie.

      But you would still get the benefit of digital task management even if you printed your list for the next day the night before. ToDoist does a good job with this and it looks nice. In the app, you click on your photo in the upper right corner and there is an option to print in the dropdown. (You can also use the Command + P keys on a Mac. I’m guessing it’s probably Ctrl + P on a PC.) It’s also easy to print from Evernote tasks. I hope this helps!

  2. Hi Abby,

    You mention several other apps in your article. How is this new system different, especially from Evernote which has many of the features you mention?

    1. Abby Lawson says:

      Evernote can definitely be used as a task manager, and it’s one of the options we go over in Tasks Made Simple. While Evernote can also be used for storing documents and note taking and such, the other three apps are dedicated task management apps, so they have some features and options that Evernote doesn’t have that some people may prefer. There’s no one “right answer”– everyone will have different needs and preferences when it comes to the task management app that is best for them. I personally use Evernote for storing my documents, but then I use ToDoist to keep track of my tasks because it is helpful for me to keep them separate. Some people like to use Evernote for both.
      No matter which app we’re using, we go through a specific weekly review and daily review process to set up our tasks and prioritize for the following week/day so we’re always focused on what we want to accomplish. I hope that answers your question!!

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