A well-crafted to-do list acts as a guiding light for your day. It helps you overcome that feeling of overwhelm and the anxiety of wether or not you’re being productive throughout the day.Before I dive in to explaining how I craft my to-do list each day, I’d like to point out that to-do lists come in all shapes and sizes. It’s all about what works for you as an individual. This method is what works for me personally. It’s up to you to decide what you can take and implement into your own planning system. I encourage you to try these techniques, but if you find that only some of it applies to your life/needs, then by all means take what works for you and leave the rest.

1. Have a “Master” List

Previously, my “master” list was what I often referred to as my “brain dump”. It was a list of non-urgent tasks that were not immediately time-sensitive. I used to house my entire “Brain Dump” in its own notebook pictured below.

Kara Benz To Do List Post 1

Once I tackled a task, I would put an “X” through the bullet and make a little note (in parenthesis) to remind myself when I accomplished it or where the results can be found. I use the notebook threading technique described by Kim (Tiny Ray of Sunshine).

Every time I think of something that needed to be done (but not necessarily today), it got added to this master list. When I sat down in the evening to craft my to-do list for the next day, I referenced my Brain Dump to see what had become a time-sensitive task.

I would also pull tasks from this list if I had a particularly light load the next day and would have time to tackle something that was not necessarily pressing; but rather would be nice to get done and out of the way.

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I have since evolved this system using some of the methods I learned after reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. I still have a Master List (or rather several master lists), but it is more project-focused vs. task-focused.

You can read the full breakdown of how I’m implementing this right here.

2. Have a “Top 3”

Once I have carefully crafted my to-do list for the following day, I look it over and decide which tasks will be my “top 3” for the day. Some experts call this a HIT (that’s high-impact tasks) list.

To determine my top 3 tasks for the day, I ask myself the following questions:

What task(s) will have the most impact on my day?
What task(s) needs to get done today?
If I get nothing else done today, what task(s) will make me feel the most accomplished?

Once I have figured out which tasks are the most important, I number them 1, 2, and 3. It’s important to note that I do not necessarily tackle them in that order. I may start with #3 because it’s quick and easy. This gets the momentum going in my day and energizes me to tackle the bigger/longer tasks on my list.

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Why does this work?

Think of your energy level like the gas tank in your car. You fill up first thing in the morning, and start driving all around town running errand after errand. Sooner or later, you will run out of gas and not be able to go anywhere else until you refill (go to bed and get some rest).

You want to hit the important destinations first so that you can make the most of your trip before your gas tank runs dry, right? It’s the same with your energy levels.

Getting those important and time-sensitive tasks out of the way first — while you have a full tank of energy — will free you up to do the smaller, easier tasks later when your energy starts to run low. (Hellooooo, mid-afternoon slump anyone?)

3. Break it Down & Be Specific

To-do’s should be actionable tasks. In addition to being actionable, they should be specific. Tasks such as “work on research paper” — while actionable — are much to vague. Instead, specific and manageable tasks that you can do in one sitting like “write first paragraph of research paper”.

Breaking larger projects down into more manageable snippets will help you to get more done. Even if each task individually seems tiny and insignificant; when you add them up over the course of the week or month, they compound in effect.

4. Be Intentional With Unfinished Tasks

I’m willing to bet that your to-do list has a few tasks on it that you’ve been meaning to get to for days, weeks, maybe even years — but just haven’t gotten around to yet. Instead of stressing over these unfinished tasks, try to figure out why they haven’t gotten done.

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Is it because the task is too broad/daunting? Try breaking it down into more manageable sub-tasks and tackling just those little bits each day.

Is it because the task is just not important to you? Take a minute to analyze wether that task still holds value. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with crossing that bad boy out and relieving the stress of it staring you in the face every single day.

Is it because you just don’t want to do it? Some tasks are just a drag. Period. They may be important, but you keep putting them off because you simply don’t feel like it. If this is the case, consider making that task one of your “top 3” for the next day. Just get it over with and save yourself the grief.

5. Plan to Plan

Scheduling time to plan out your to-do list is the single most important thing you can do to increase your productivity.

Every night before bed, I sit down with my Bullet Journal and plan out my to-do list for the following day. I analyze what I accomplished that day, move tasks forward, and add in tasks from my Master List as needed.

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This is akin to setting out your outfit the night before a big morning meeting. You are setting yourself up for success.

Waking up each morning and already having a clear vision of what you need to accomplish that day is invaluable. It initiates a forward momentum in your day. Rather than scrambling in the morning to figure out what you need to do, you can hit the ground running on your most important tasks right away.

6. Consider an “If/Then” List

This is one that I am experimenting with in my Bullet Journal at the moment. Remember how I was talking about energy levels earlier? Well, I have come to realize that energy ebbs and flows for me throughout the week.

Some days, I inexplicably have an over-abundance of energy and get everything on my to-do list accomplished before noon, leaving me with the afternoon free to work ahead.

Other days, I find myself drained from the moment I wake up. After slugging through my “Top 3”, I end up procrastinating the rest of the day away.

Here’s a peek at my “If/Then” Lists:

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I’ve taken some of my repetitive daily, weekly, and monthly tasks and categorized them into two lists. The first is my “If I have lots of energy then I will…” list, and the second is “If I’m feeling sluggish then I will…” list.

The concept here is that no matter how I am feeling each day, I can grab an item from the appropriate list and tackle it that day. This way, no matter what I am being productive and can feel good about my day.

It is my sincerest hope that you’ve found some helpful advice here when tackling your daily to-do list. As I said before, I hope you’ll experiment with these techniques and determine what could be applied to your own to-do list each day in order to make it more efficient.

About Kara Benz

Kara Benz is the artist and author behind Boho Berry, where she inspires her readers to lead a more centered, fulfilled, and inspired life. Kara lives in Central NJ and is currently working on opening an Etsy shop filled with planner stickers, printables, and stationery.
  • Laura Trad

    Great post Kara! Just what I needed today

  • Ines

    Hi Kara! Is there a link missing in section 1 (You can read the full breakdown of how I’m implementing this right here.)?

  • Sandy Baker

    I have only been using my Bujo for 1 month and I am loving it!! I have a lot of tailoring to do and this post has great ideas. Thank you!!

  • Pedro Jose Tineo

    Hi Kara, Thanks for such a great post, please I’d like to know the meaning of colors in the hourly bar of your bullet journal

    • Beka

      I’d love to know this as well!

    • Sure! I use: blue = sleep, yellow = morning routine, orange = blog & business work, green = appointments & events, and purple = family stuff 🙂

  • LMNOP

    Oh! The “If/Then” Section is great! My energy has been really uneven lately – I’m gonna give it a try. Love your ideas as always. Thanks!

  • Kryzia

    Hi Kara, I just love your posts and have been an avid boho berry follower since just last month, when I stumbled upon you by chance! I have implemented many of your recommendations into my own bullet journal! I am a medical student and am using an A4 Leuchtturm since I have so many things to keep track of with school and life. I used your biz bujo as a template of how to set up such a large journal (like many others I previously used a A5). Thank you for sharing so many wonderful tips and tricks!

  • sid.

    I love the if/then, because it will give me permission to procrastinate!

    • Yes! You’re free to “wander off” for a bit but you’re also tricking yourself into getting things done 🙂

  • disqus_WL16RMXRhu

    Thank you Kara, very inspiring! One thing that I found with the Bullet Journal and why it didn’t work for my is future tasks…for example, if today is May 3, and I need to do something on June 5th, I can’t estimate how many pages I need to skip to write that note in for June, how do you handle that?

      • disqus_WL16RMXRhu

        I forgot about the future log, thanks kOoLiNuS!

    • M.Renee

      I use both the Alastair Method and the Hope Method (Calendex), though I’m having a little more trouble with the latter.
      Alastair’s blog entry is here: http://bulletjournal.com/future-log-the-alastair-method/
      I like this method for jotting down events or activities to do in the future, but there is not a lot of room for adding details. I’m going to give Calendex another shot for finding the details for future events that end up randomly jotted down in my daily/weekly logs. Definitely sticking with Alastair though. I’m certain you will find what method(s) will be best for you.
      Oh- one more thing: I’ve broken down my Alastair Future Log in quarters of a year to give me a little more space vertically.

      • disqus_WL16RMXRhu

        Thanks! The Calendex might work for me, I am going to try it; I really would like to make the bullet journal work

  • Quicksilvr2Gold

    I recently returned to my efforts at staying productive with lists and such, and picked up a standard organizer with calendar and two page per spread weeks. But instead of using it like the corporation’s videos, I am reading Bullet Journal materials and looking at how those work, or can work with my simple calendar and notebook. My guess is by the time I finish this spiral bound calendar I will be replacing it with a notebook in the same cover. LOL! I’ve done lists so many ways, and currently my problem has been that I need color to really find my way around my plans. However, an artist I am not and my budget is very tight, so I am unsure what will help.
    I was thinking, after seeing this, that I have an evening routine to change, and I need to do a better job managing my to-do lists. HOW do you keep them so tidy? Mine end up looking like something blew up.

    • As far as keeping lists tidy, I use a dot grid notebook to keep things in line. Also, I’ve found that writing in all caps tends to make everything look a lot neater 🙂

      • Quicksilvr2Gold

        All caps, I tried that yesterday when I saw how neat yours looks. It helps not to have letters below the line. It is also proving to be far more difficult to change to than I expected. Thank you for the tip!

    • I use Staedtler colored pens in my planner that work fine for me. Various colored highlighters work very well, too.

  • Amy

    Great tips, Kara! I’ve been getting into a rut with my bullet journal, and I appreciate having some ideas to get me going again.

  • Theresa Petermann

    I realized something today while reading your blog post. I keep telling myself I don’t need to plan things out because the only one affected by how I use time is me. I have been disabled for fourteen years now and I have such limited interactions with other people, that my days sort of run on their own steam. Lately I have been trying to figure out how to get some dreams back into my daily routine. This was a big aha today. thanks as always for sharing.

  • Tabitha Deasún

    Hi, I had a question about your If/Then Energy lists. Are those for the month as a whole or do you make new ones for each week of the month?

    • Hi Tabitha. Those are on-going. Just ideas for what I can do with my extra time when I have it 🙂

  • isaaccrabtree

    Bull jour, Bullet journalists! Great ideas all around. I like the “Plan to Plan” routines for evening, morning, and during the day. The discipline of actually sitting down to do this has made my own life much easier, plus it keeps me off of twitter in the mornings while I’m drinking my coffee. Having these key ideas are great.

    Also, great point about what you said re: breaking down tasks and having actionable steps. Donald Trump probably doesn’t simply write down “Win” every day, he writes down stuff like, “Tweet 5 insults. Call Bernie to encourage a third party run. Remind everyone that the Clintons are criminals shielded by the media.”

    The “steam-based” IF/Then pages look great as well.

  • Aliz Zhong

    This is beautifully written and filled with so much resourceful advices. I thought about creating a productive journal/ to-do-list for months and never came close to using it to my advantages. Your suggestions on the “Top 3” are absolutely gems, adding so much clarity to a better way of organising my chaotic minds! For someone who believes in “living the moment”, thank you for sharing your experience! – From Sydney, AU

  • Sharon Troia

    I love the energy If/then idea. Today is a “sluggish” day for me, lots of procrastination over here, and guilt and pressure building… If I had an “If sluggish list”, I’d have “Browse BohoBerry for planning / organizing information and inspiration”. DONE! Phew, I’m feeling much more accomplished already 😉 Thanks!

  • Really enjoyed this post. I’m loving the ideas I’m getting from your handwritten style of creating a to do list. I currently use Passion Planner as my planner of choice. I’ve never experimented with creating a calendar from scratch like the Bullet Journal method. I’ve also tried Mark Forster’s Autofocus method and found it to be a great and easy-to-implement tool.

    I’ve been really trying hard not to focus on what I DON’T get done, and your post is great encouragement, especially for those “Sluggish” days. The idea of picking 3 of your most important tasks for the day isn’t new to me, but somewhere along the way I’ve lost touch with it. I’ll definitely have to start using it again.

    One of my favorite books, in addition to GTD by David Allen, is The Power of Focus by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Les Hewitt. I’ve just started reading it again, but have put it aside for other books I’m interested in; I simply need to finish it so I don’t keep spinning my wheels.

  • Lisa

    Kara, this is a great post! Thank you!
    Question I have for you, and with the Bullet Journal overall: all the examples I see shows the days task lists lined up neat and tidy (i.e. a lovely looking Wednesday, on top of a lovely, tidy-looking Thursday, etc.). The reality for my journal is a Monday with 15 to-dos at the start, and 8-10 more tasks get added over the course of the day. Add to that the four or five meetings or topics that come up throughout the day, for which I capture short notes. In the end, I have about 3 or 4 pages devoted just to Monday….it feels really messy… Any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong?
    I was really intrigued by your Master Lists – work, home, personal. That really feels like it fits my life. Where do you store those? How do you incorporate those items into your days?

    • Brandon

      Great article but i am looking for a good way to make my lists digital because i always have my phone and the idea of adding tasks writing everything out every time add a task would be a task in itself. Some days i forget to even write my list what i mean it takes some mental conditioning to do every day. Im kind of person who could spend hours writing lists and goals and plans so i need something quick easy and have a spot for tasks everyday and new tasks for each day not all one jumbled list like i do now im using basic quicknotes from my phone. Good point on actionable tasks i often put things like “clean house” and it might just be 1 room that needs tidied up. Bible study is another where i should write in specifics like what chapter etc. I also have energy days and sluggish days so good to break things down into 2 lists such as working out at gym but if i cant do that day have some alternatives so not wasting time or sitting around. Some days i do everything before noon as you said and dont use my freetime effectively.

  • Megan Sandri

    Great ideas!

  • dieter28

    hi kara, thank for your inspiring article – i’ve already found some things, i’d like to add to my bujo: the masterlist, the if/then lists, and the MIT-concept. well, the last isn’t so new (http://theartofsimple.net/most-important-tasks/), but you reminded me of it. i’m looking for your future ideas, so go on!