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How To: Build a Better To-Do List

My favorite way to procrastinate is to do things that make me feel like I’m not procrastinating. Things that fall into this category: making tea for my roommates (even if they don’t want any/aren’t home… “I want tea so we’re ALL having tea”), organizing my makeup, and, of course, writing to-do lists. These to-do lists often include tantalizing tasks like “write to-do list” and “eat lunch” but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel super productive writing them. That being said, all this “productivity” has made me a pretty excellent to-do list writer (I’m bad at math and I’m afraid of skiing, just let me have this one, okay?). Without further ado, here are my five tips for writing a better to-do list!

1.    Pick your poison. There are lots of different types of to-do lists: daily, weekly, monthly, long-term, have-to-be-done-by-5-tonight, etc. Rather than having things that need to be done within the next hour rubbing shoulders with tasks that can’t be completed without months of planning, actively decide what kind of to-do list you’re writing. I usually have three or more going at any given time, each with a specific time frame and/or purpose attached. This way nothing will slip through the cracks, and you won’t spend undue amounts of time worrying about things you just don’t need to be thinking about right now.

2.   Be informed. Before you start writing frantically, figure out what you actually need to get done. If you’re writing a list of the homework that you have this week, work through all your syllabi and class notes and make sure you’ve transferred all aspects of all assignments. If you’re writing a list of the steps for an application, go through the program’s website or information packet so you can be sure you’re keeping track of all the components. If you’re writing a list to help you achieve personal/physical/academic/professional goals, make sure you spend time really thinking about what’s important to you and how you plan on doing it. The risk with a to-do list is that you’ll start having tunnel vision, without having all the information you need inside that tunnel. If you forget that you need a letter of recommendation for a program, but you think you’ve done everything you need to because you’ve checked off all the items on your list, you could really hold yourself back unnecessarily.

3.   Don’t over-emphasize. Topics on my latest to-do list ranged from “post insta of Pamplona coffee” to “submit final thesis prospectus.” It’s useful to just write every little thing down so you can really focus on the big stuff without trying to remember random details. What’s not useful is having a to-do list that’s a mess of highlighted phrases, underlined (and double-underlined and triple-underlined) tasks. Everything on your to-do list is important. Checking off “make bed” can give you the break from your desk that you need to bang out that conclusion. If you start using a confusing array of symbols to try and prioritize the items on your to-do list, you’re going to start slipping. If you’re feeling productive, move straight from “phone interview” to “finish p-set” but if you’re dragging, don’t shame yourself out of tackling “catch up on Silicon Valley” next. You know what’s important, and if you trust that knowledge, rather than focusing on scribbles on a piece of paper, you’ll end up a lot happier in the long run.

4.   Keep ‘em together. The idea of switching to a digital calendar freaks me out. I know that it would be a lot easier in a lot of ways, and that it’s probably inevitable, but, like my opinion on e-books (booo!), I’m going to be stubborn for just a little while longer. But no matter what kind of system you use, have a system. If you’re totally digital, use an app like Evernote to keep all your to-do lists in one place. If you’re like me and are not ready for that kind of future, make sure you always put your to-do lists in the same section of your planner or the same wall in your room. However you prefer to do it, your to-do lists should never be another source of disorganization that’s going to stress you out. Don’t write them on your hand, don’t write them on scraps of paper that you stick into corners of your room and only find on move out day (“that library book was due when?!”), don’t write them in the margins of books. Just find something that works for you, and keeping doing that thing.

5.    Make it fun. Guys, I love post-it’s. Like, more than normal 21-year-old “adults” should like post-it’s. I even invented them (JK, that was Lisa Kudrow and that friend of hers who didn’t stay as famous after that movie). Part of the fun of writing to-do lists for me is not just avoiding going to the library or starting my reading or going to the gym for just “five more minutes” but because I have the school supplies to back it up. Some of my favorites are from ban.do, Rifle Paper Co., and Knock Knock!

I hope you guys enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed checking off “write a Her Campus post about your weird obsession with to-do lists”! Hop to it, collegiettes.


all photos c/o @zoedasein on instagram

Zoë is a senior at Harvard studying English, French, and Classics. She is an active member of the theatre community as one of the few specialized stage makeup designers and artists on campus. When not in the dressing rooms and at the makeup tables of the various stages available at Harvard, she is reading anything she can get her hands on, drinking endless cups of tea, and exploring new restaurants in the Boston area.
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