How to Build a Better To Do List

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Build a Better To Do ListLike 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 report to my boss. 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’m tossing and turning at night over the fact that I didn’t have time to cross it all off.

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

Column A

Instead of keeping one giant, unmanageable list, I instead organize my tasks into columns. First is Column A, which represents the mandatory. 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? Have to get some. Client requested a follow-up call? Must pick up the phone and dial. There’s no compromising with Column A – I’m not hitting the hay 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 e-mail soon, but it’s ok if it has to wait until the morning. In an ideal world I’d complete Column B every day, but ideal worlds are hard to come by for working moms. 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?  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 pace of my life might be starting to get out of hand. Column C 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, more likely, overflowing – I don’t have to get it all done today, or even this week. Instead, I can just focus on one column at a time, and enjoy that awesome feeling of accomplishment as I start crossing the items off.


Are you a list-maker too? How do you manage your overflowing to-do list?