How To Write Checklists that are Actually Helpful (Not Just Stressful)

I love a good checklist, and not just because it’s literally the only way I can stay anywhere near on track each day. Checklists provide direction in a way that is much more flexible than time blocking, more organized than a brain dump, and more clear than the jumbled mess of tasks they exist as before being put on paper. The thing is, I think most people are doing checklists wrong. I used to use checklists as a never-ending to-do list, tacking 5 more to the bottom every time I crossed off one and inevitably burning out somewhere around task 37 so badly that I would need a 2-day reboot.

Just me? Didn’t think so.

We all have a finite amount of energy, brain power, and hours in the day. Whether you consider the end of your mental rope decision fatigue, exhaustion, or another name, everyone can agree that you literally can’t do everything in a day. We have limits, called hours, lack of caffeine, and sleepiness. When we don’t account for this while making our checklists, it’s setting us up for failure because we will run out of time, energy, and decision-making-power at some point. An actually helpful checklist has to take four things into account:

  • Prioritization
  • Time constraints
  • Energy constraints

First, there’s prioritization. If you haven’t started prioritizing your list through some kind of color-coding or intentional order, start today. It makes a world of difference. I use a DayDesigner planner that has two separate sections for checklists, a top 3 at the top of the page and a to-do to the side of the page. There are 18 slots total between these lists. Whatever I have going on that day and whatever I need to get done, I have 18 slots to divide it up between. Usually, I make sure the top 3 get done first and foremost, and work my way down the rest of the list as I have time and energy. I usually get all my tasks done, but if I even hit 80% I consider it a pretty productive day.

You may ask, what about the things that don’t make it on the list? Simple: those are bonus points. They are things that I can feel extra-good about doing if they do happen, but I don’t absolutely need them to be accomplished at the end of the day. The most important things, like work projects or replenishing my dog’s food because we’re out, go in my top 3. Less crucial but still important things, like personal projects or housework, go toward the top of my to-dos. Less important things that I’d still like to do, like reading for at least 30 minutes a day, go toward the bottom of my list – on an ideal day they get done, but if they don’t, it won’t severely impact my health or career. If it doesn’t make it on the list, it’s a bonus. Sure, finishing that extra load of laundry would be amazing, but will anyone die or be left pants-less if it gets put off till tomorrow? If the answer is no, it’s not important enough on the list. Label it a bonus and treat it as such.

Next, there’s time constraints. If you’re working 10 hours in one day and have a doctor’s appointment, you don’t have time for a hour-long workout, preparing a gourmet meal, deep cleaning your house top to bottom, meditating for 30 minutes, reading an entire 600-page novel, and painting in the moonlight with a glass of wine. I’m sorry, it’s just not going to happen. Keep in mind your time constraints, and try to have a mix of tasks ranging from 10 minutes to an hour in length on your list. 18 hour-long tasks aren’t going to get done in one of my days between shifts and appointments, but I can usually spare 5 minutes here and there to keep my DuoLingo streak going, eat a fruit or vegetable, and drink a glass of water. Try to be aware of what the gaps in your day look like, and set yourself up for success by having a mix of time-consuming tasks on there. If you can check 3 or 4 boxes in the first hour of your day, you’ll feel way more confident and productive going into the rest of it.

In addition to time constraints, we have to mind energy constraints. Because of my chronic health conditions, I can’t do a large amount of physically demanding tasks in a day. Just taking the sheets off my bed to throw in the wash requires at least 20 minutes sitting down to recover most days. While your energy constraints might be less severe than mine (or more), we have to take into account how much mental and physical energy we are asking ourselves to exert with these lists. My work can mostly be done with me sitting down, so it doesn’t require a large amount of physical energy. Putting away clean clothes, on the other hand, takes a fair amount of physical energy, but it takes so little mental energy I could literally do it in my sleep. Be aware of how much you mentally and physically have to give each day, and make sure all the tasks on your list can be reasonably accomplished with that energy.

Whatever your daily to-do list looks like, it needs to take these three things into account in order to help you get done what you need to and feel accomplished at the end of the day, instead of feeling like you’re running a race that gets longer the more you run. Know what you have to get done, what you want to get done, and what you’d like to get done, and prioritize each of them accordingly. Understand that you only have so much time in a day, and don’t set yourself up for failure by having too many time-consuming tasks crammed into too few hours. Know what kinds and amounts of energy you have to give to your list, and make sure your tasks can reasonably be accomplished with those amounts of energy. If you have more energy to use up when your list is done, you will easily be able to find a place to put it, but make sure that your list can be accomplished with the energy you usually have to give (not that you dream of having to give). There’s no shame in making a 15-minute meal well instead of attempting an hour-to-make gourmet meal and giving up to order pizza halfway through.

Be gentle with yourself as you work through your lists, and if you find that you are consistently not able to check everything off, don’t look at yourself as the failure. Look at the common themes with what you are unable to get done, and consider reducing those responsibilities by delegating to someone else in your household, hiring someone to do them, or making those responsibilities smaller. Shifting from “I must produce 5,000 words of perfectly-crafted content for 3 personal businesses every day” to “I’ll blog 3 days a week, post 3 days a week, and take a day off” can save you a world of stress. Long, beautiful lists that are impossible to complete won’t do you any favors, whether for productivity or emotional stability and sanity.

What are some of your favorite hacks for making checklists that are actually helpful?

3 thoughts on “How To Write Checklists that are Actually Helpful (Not Just Stressful)

  1. I don’t use them in my personal life very often anymore. (I have a nice routine and little changes typically.) When I was still working I always used a weekly checklist. I was a case manager and the assistant manager of group home. Lots of the work was routine daily and easy to manage. The other requirements, though routine, had more flexibility. In order to be sure I got it all done on time, I did a couple things. Blocked out specific days that were quieter to do the bigger projects. I also kept a weekly checklist of the tasks I needed to complete by the end of the week which were not the daily tasks. I broke the list into categories of individuals on my caseload & what I had to do for each and the other tasks.

    At the beginning of the week the list looked long, though it dwindled quickly. I rarely added to it. I found that by keeping a running list of what I needed to work into my week made it easier on a daily basis to pick and choose which ones to do when and keep my overwhelm down. A weekly list gave me more flexibility overall than a daily list.


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