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How to write a realistic to do list
Part of my plan for not deteriorating into a shiftless sad sack this winter involves being super nice to myself, setting only realistic, attainable goals and not being too hard on myself if I slip up and don’t accomplish everything I intended. Those sound like pretty simple marching orders, but as an obsessive To-Do List writer and master of self-flagellation, it actually requires quite a lot of discipline not to overschedule myself and then brood over every little failure.

You too? These are some things that you should put into practice if your To-Do List has become a source of soul-crushing misery.

Get a notebook.

I know we’re all digital, storing things on our smartphones and in the cloud. I’m with you. But it has helped me immensely to have a physical, paper notebook to carry around. It makes me feel more in control, and I like the freedom of being able to cross things out, scribble in the margins and draw myself little diagrams. If you’ve tried digital organization and still feel overwhelmed, try going back to paper for awhile and see if it helps.

Write the mother of all To-Do Lists.

Open up a blank page and start writing. Don’t worry about priority or grouping tasks. Just spend 15-20 minutes brainstorming everything on your agenda for the next month or two, from tiny things like “buy bread” to big things like “redecorate living room” or “write thesis”. Fill as many pages as you need. One of the things I find most overwhelming is the feeling that I have so many things to do that I’ve forgotten some of them. It helps to get everything out of your brain and onto paper.

Take your big tasks and break them down into smaller steps.

Put a star next to any task that’s going to involve multiple steps or take more than an hour. On a new page, break those things down into smaller bites. For example, you might take “redesign blog”, which is potentially a huge job, and break it down into 1) pick new color scheme, 2) create new logo, 3) pick social media icons, etc.

Every week, start a new page in your notebook.

Write out each day of the week, separated by 3 blank lines.


3… And so on.

Every morning, pick 3 things from your Big To-Do list and add them to your list for that day.

No matter how much you want to do more, you only get to pick three. If you knock those three things off the list and still have the mojo, pick one additional thing from the big list. If you get your 3 things done and you don’t want to do anything else, you don’t have to! Three things is totally good. Have a beer! Watch some Star Trek! Take a nap! You earned it.

Fun things can (and should!) totally be on your list.

Take your dog to the dog park! Schedule a friend date! Buy a bottle of your favorite wine! Have a fancy-pants dinner with your significant otherperson! Take a bubble bath! Make sure that your list is not all miserable, menial tasks and pencil some fun shenanigans in there too. At least one per week. Get comfortable with the idea that these are equally important and not a waste of time. They are integral to your sanity.

If you don’t hit your goals for the day, they just roll over to the next day.

There is no punishment, no sulking, no feeling like a failure. Sometimes shit happens. Add those undone items to your list for tomorrow. This is not an “extra” or “overdue” task – it just becomes #1 for tomorrow, and tomorrow you pick only two new tasks. Or maybe you don’t do anything today and just roll over all three to tomorrow. It’s ok! The world will not spin off of its axis because you did not return a book to the library or paint your closet.

Forgive yourself when you mess up.

Maybe you’ve been a straight up slacker and haven’t hit your three tasks for a whole week. I know I’ve had some weeks where I’d rather gorge myself on Mexican food and live in front of Netflix than do anything useful. There have been times when I’ve come home from work on Friday, put on pajamas and not taken them off again until it was time for work on Monday. These things happen when you’re human.

In fact, they don’t just happen, you’re entitled to them. Don’t beat yourself up. Just chalk it up to “Me Time” and, when you’re ready, pick up where you left off.

Do you set unrealistic expectations for yourself? How do you keep them in check?


  1. This is great advice. I always like to physically have a to-do list. Nothing is as satisfying as getting to cross something off. That’s why I like to put little things on the list so I can easily cross them off. It definitely motivates me to do more.

  2. I think this is the best post I’ve read all week. I am a massive to-do-list masochist. I schedule way more than I can possibly achieve in one day and then get all mopey when I don’t get everything ticked off. This is great advice.

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