How to make a to-do list, for real

I know that the title of this post sounds stupid. Patronizing, even.

But frankly, list-making is a skill that reminds me of my tax pro days. I mean that as in tax guides and my colleagues made me facepalm all the time because they just assumed that every client had good recordkeeping skills out of the gate. When based on the messy shoeboxes of paper and clusterfuck Quickbooks files I had to go through, I can certainly tell you that no, recordkeeping skills are not innate. 

Photo Credit: Pexels Free Stock Photos // Who has a desk this slick and organized in real life? No one I know!
Photo Credit: Pexels Free Stock Photos // Who has a desk this slickly color-coordinated and organized in real life? No one I know!

And the same honestly goes for list-making. Sometimes, it’s not just like a grocery list where it’s pretty simple and straightforward then you toss the list when you’re done. I used to really suck at making lists because I applied that approach to everything and would frequently not get enough done, or forget where I even put the damn list!

Sometimes it requires a little more finesse than taking a grocery list approach and simply writing down the things you have to get done. You need to pump that list up a bit. Of course, you don’t want to obsessively pore over an Excel sheet that has ten different colors and more columns than the frigging Parthenon where it’s taking you more time to make this beast than getting your actual work done. Any professional project manager will agree that there needs to be a balance between an anarchic lack of management and over-management.


Here’s my method of list-making that applies namely to people who have multiple hustles. My lists entail immediate as well as short and longish term things that need doing.


  1. Take the grocery list approach to just get your tasks onto paper, your phone, etc. This bit of info-dumping will help get a lot of the stress that leads to system failure off your head. You’ve figured out what you need to do. Now it’s time to sort these things out.
  2. Split them up according to your hustles. For me, it’s Sonic Toad, Himalaya, other freelance work, and personal/household stuff.
  3. Then split them up according to priority. Use a highlighter, different text or cell colors, and/or symbols to order them from the urgent things that really need to get done and the stuff that can wait.
  4. Intersperse reminders for other commitments you already have once your priorities have been set. If you have to schedule an appointment, make sure it doesn’t coincide with something you already have going on at the same day and time. If that preexisting commitment isn’t as important, see if you can reschedule it.
  5. For longer-term goals and tasks, you might want to make a separate list from the more immediate stuff. This will help keep you from getting distracted from your immediate priorities, and you can revisit it time to time to see how what you’re currently doing is helping you with this long-term goal.
  6. For crying out loud, keep the list somewhere where you can easily find it. My dad spent YEARS telling me to just write something down when I’d forget whatever I needed to, and I’d look at him and say, “Well, what do I when it’s in my other pants, huh?!” Fortunately these days we have all these nifty apps and tools for such a thing. I often do the initial info dump on paper and then put reminders on my monitor and desk with regular Post-Its and the Super Sticky 7-day kind where I plan stuff for the week. But then the “master list” is in the memo app on my phone, or a Google Doc or draft email I can see on all my devices that automatically syncs. I also put reminders in Rainlendar and my phone’s calendar for appointments and deadlines.

One of my favorite Hyperbole and a Half comics is the one about failing at being an adult because you have this system failure resulting from “it’s like the things never end!”


This used to happen to me alllll the time. Learning how to really make a to-do list and get my priorities sorted helped me avert total utter system failure from being overwhelmed by all this shit I had to do. Naturally, like any other hustler, once I’ve ticked off several boxes, more come to their funerals! But I still slay those little mofos with my good list-making skills so it feels 10 million times more satisfying to kick back with a round of Avernum when I’m done. (Not 5 unless I’m feeling masochistic.)

What list-making and prioritization methods work best for you? Any tools, tips, apps, etc. you’d like to share in the comments?

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