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Academia Productivity

How to structure a ToDo list


ToDo lists are most certainly one of the most used and also most effective productivity tools out there. It doesn’t matter if you use fancy apps or simple paper post-it notes, as long as you write down what you need to do next, you are using a To-Do list. However, most people don’t know how to structure them effectively. I also did it wrong myself for the longest time, because I did not know any better. The solution is pretty simple and if you don’t already do this, here are two simple tricks how to structure a ToDo list to be more helpful for you.

Call-to-Action titles

I don’t know about you, but whenever I want to get something out of my system, I put it into my ToDo list. As a result, I also don’t forget what I need to do during the day, week or even next year. In the past my items in the list looked something like this:

  • Article on Historical Games
  • Flight to Vienna
  • Birthday Jeff
  • WordPress Theme

If you take a look at my list, can you tell what I have to do? In my head, I know that I need to write an article on historical games and also to check the flights to Vienna. Also, the more I keep the details in my head, the lesser the ToDo list helps me. The items on that list are in fact written in a bad manner. David Allen writes in his book “Getting Things Done” that everything in your head is still in your system and therefore uses up your remaining energy.

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

David Allen, Getting Things Done, page 277, pos. 5373.

To get the things out of your head completely (he calls this “Capture”), you need to set distinct Call-to-Action titles (he calls this “Clarify”), meaning, that you take the extra two seconds to write you list more decisive:

  • Write article on Historical Games
  • Check for flights to Vienna
  • Buy a birthday gift for Jeff
  • Look for a new WordPress theme

It is a small difference, but it does make a ToDo list much easier to work with. Especially, when you have more then four items.


Shows a ToDo list

Another trick how to structure a ToDo list more efficiently are subtasks. Whatever noting system you use, subtasks are usually a part of that. David Allen also writes, that knowing what your next step is going to be, helps you in getting things done. So for the moment, I only know what I have to do and the Call-to-Action titles help me in being more aware of that. But usually, task consist of many things to check on, so it is also helpful to write them down as well:

  • Write article on Historical Games
    • Read article by person X
    • Research sources
    • Talk to person Y
    • Create first draft until Nov 15
  • Check for flights to Vienna
    • Look for companies that fly to Vienna
    • Look-up if you going to need a passport and if it is still valid
  • Buy a birthday gift for Jeff
    • Ask his girlfriend what to buy
    • Get wrapping paper
  • Look for a new WordPress theme
    • Consult person X
    • Check Themeforest
    • Compare prices

How to structure a ToDo list!

As you can see, the list is getting longer and longer, but that doesn’t matter. The more distinct tasks I write into my ToDo list, the lesser I have to care about them. You might also think that writing all that down takes more time then simply doing the tasks and that is true for some of them. If you can do a task right away, it is of course preferred. Most of the time however, I simply just remember that I have to do this sometime, but can’t do it now or maybe I need to wait until I get a reply by person X. In my experience, tasks can also take a long time and over that time, I tend to forget what I had to do. Distinct Call-to-Action titles but also subtasks help me tremendously a week or a month later.

I could also go into creating different projects or folders for each category of tasks, but I think I will leave that for another time. ToDo list help me a lot in my day-to-day tasks like editing a book or organising my teaching. If you are interested in what David Allen has to say, check out his book. A review will also come soon.

Cover of the book "Getting Things Done" by David Allen
Allen, David. 2015. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin Books.


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Sebastian Hageneuer

Hi! My name is Sebastian. I am an archaeologist, a university lecturer, freelancer, guitarist, and father. You could say I am quiet busy, so I learned to manage my time and energy to build good habits and still have space for myself and my family. Sounds difficult? Read here how I do it. Every Friday.

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