There are a lot of methods out there for staying organized. But which method prevails? Over four days, I tried four ways of organizing my to-do list. I tracked my overall productivity and stress levels to see which worked best.
Monday: Get rid of your to-do list and instead schedule out your tasks in your digital calendar. This method is good for people who like structure, aren’t afraid of a crowded calendar, and love planning ahead.
Tuesday: Keep a running list but do just “one thing” on it. This method is good for daydreamers, multitaskers, and people who are easily distracted.
Wednesday: Use a digital task manager. This method is good for techies and people who have A LOT of tasks to organize, or are working on a variety of projects.
Thursday: Make three lists, one for immediate tasks, one for future tasks, and one for tasks you’re never going to get done. This method is good for self-motivated people with competing priorities who love crossing the easy items off their list (a little too much), and don’t need much support to stay focused.
You know that slimy, green ghost from Ghostbusters? The one that floats around eating everything in sight?
That’s kind of what my to-do list reminds me of. Every day it just grows bigger and bigger as I desperately try to get it under control. (Anyone have an extra proton pack lying around?)
Things weren’t always this way. My brain changed during my first year of college. Suddenly, it felt impossible to remember things as well as I used to. There was so much to keep track of: homework, internships, extracurriculars, where I put my car keys. It was around this time that I started experimenting with different planners and to-do lists.
Sadly, I’ve never quite mastered the whole “productivity” thing, at least not in a cohesive way. There are a lot of methods out there for staying organized, and over the years, I’ve tried most of them: keeping my to-do list in notebooks, bullet journals, paper planners, phone apps, and hundreds of color-coded Post-its plastered to my desk.
Nothing has stuck… yet.
This year, I decided enough is enough. I scoured HBR’s archives for research on the best to-do list methods out there and pledged to give my four favorites a try.
For four days, I tried four different strategies. Every morning, I set out to complete 12 tasks that required a similar amount of effort, time, and focus, and eight of which were important for me to complete by 5 PM. The number of meetings I had between Monday and Thursday did vary slightly (I’ve noted where this may have been a factor). At the end of each day, I measured my overall productivity and stress-levels.
Monday: No list, just a calendar.
As someone who often feels haunted by their to-do list, the idea of tearing it to shreds sounded amazing — so when I came across an article advising me to do just that, I was thrilled. “Stop making to-do lists,” author Daniel Markovitz writes. “They’re simply setting you up for failure and frustration.”
His idea is straightforward. Rather than relying on Post-its or productivity apps, use your digital calendar to organize your time. For every task you have to get done, estimate how long it will take, and block that period off in advance. Markovitz argues that this method helps you better prioritize your work, gives you built-in deadlines, and keeps you from prioritizing super easy tasks.
I gave it a try. Last thing on Friday, I took one final look at my list and scheduled all of the tasks I wanted to get done on Monday. I left some spots open for lunch, reviewing emails, and any last-minute assignments that might pop up.
Filling out my calendar ahead of time gave me a real sense of control over my time. But as the weekend progressed, I started to panic. As an anxious person, the “Sunday Scaries” hit me on Saturday around 2 pm. I found myself constantly opening Outlook to see what I had coming up. Each task seemed to be staring at me through the screen, whispering “soon.”
Once Monday morning came around, I managed to get it together. When that first *ding* chimed, notifying me it was for my task, I was ready to go. I didn’t have to use any brain power to figure out what assignment to tackle (a huge relief, especially on a Monday morning), and I finished it with 10 minutes to spare. The blocked time on my calendar also alleviated any pressure I would normally feel to respond to emails or multitask. That said, I did have to move some things around due to last-minute schedule changes.
My least favorite part of this method: Not getting to check off my completed task. Checking off tasks literally releases dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel light and happy — and WOW did I miss that feeling.
Tasks assigned: 12
Tasks completed: 8
Good for scheduling work-life balance
Keeps you on-task
Scary to look at
Tasks may get rearranged with schedule changes
No checking off completed tasks (or dopamine)
This method is good for… people who like structure, who aren’t afraid of a crowded calendar, or who love planning ahead.
Would I do it again? As much as I love the idea of straight up shredding my to-do list, if I were to try this method again, I would approach it a bit differently. I would keep a written to-do list and schedule items from it on my calendar each morning. That way, I get both the structure of time-boxing tasks and the satisfaction of crossing them off.
Tuesday: Keep a running list but do just “one thing” on it.
Our brains start to get overwhelmed as soon as we have more than seven things to choose from. For me, this is a reoccurring issue. Sometimes my to-do list is so long that I completely shut down. Instead of deciding on a task to tackle, I stare off into the distance and think non-work thoughts. (If aliens exist, why haven’t they contacted us yet?)
The tactic I tried Tuesday, which I call the “do one thing” method, would supposedly help me overcome this problem. It’s a strategy highlighted in Peter Bergman’s article, “Your To-Do List Is, in Fact, Too Long.” The core concept is: Keep your to-do list, but use it only as a reference — not something to work off of. Every time you want to tackle a task, write it down on a Post-It and stick it where you can see it. Then, hide your full list and focus. Once you finish your chosen task, cross it off your list, and start again.
The idea here is that by selecting one task at a time, you’re more likely to follow through on it, as opposed to hopping half-heartedly from task to task (or just staring off into space).
Come Tuesday, I selected my first task: research ideas for our upcoming pitch meeting. I wrote it down, hid my to-do list, and stuck the Post-it to the wall in front of me where it would remain in sight. Every time my mind began to wander, I brought my eyes back to the note. It reminded me a bit of meditation: when your mind starts to drift, you come back to the sensation of your breath moving in and out, and re-focus on the present moment. Think of the Post-it as “my breath” in this scenario. Its physical presence helped me concentrate on the work at hand.
The best part? After finishing each assignment, I had the pleasure of tearing the Post-it off the wall AND crossing it off my list. Double dopamine!
Tasks assigned: 12
Tasks completed: 11
Results in high focus
High task-completion rate
Difficult to fit in tasks around meetings
This method is good for… daydreamers, multitaskers, or people who are easily distracted.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Compared to the calendar tactic, I had a harder time navigating my time around meetings and avoiding interruptions. But this method proved more useful than the last, at least for someone like me, who has trouble staying focused. After just one day, I was more confident in my choices, more productive, and even though I attended more meetings than I had on Monday, I was able to get more done and start tasks that I had been procrastinating.
Wednesday: Use a digital task manager.
Please let me know if you relate to this scenario because it happens to me all the time: I’ll be casually scrolling through the app store on my phone when I see a shiny, new task manager application. I download it with high hopes, thinking it will help me get my life together. And it does! For a day… until I forget it exists and never open it again.
Still, on Wednesday, it only seemed right to give digital task managers a fair shot. After all, digital to-do lists, when used correctly, have quite the allure. The fancy ones allow you to schedule tasks, sync them with your email, and make multiple lists at once.
For this experiment, I decided to use an app called Todoist. When you Google “best digital task managers,” Todoist is one of the first ones to surface. But we all know search engines don’t know everything, so I did a little more digging to be sure I was making the right choice. According to The Muse and LifeHack.org, I was.
Todoist had everything I was looking for in a digital planner: project sorting (which allows you to organize tasks into different groups), task scheduling (so you can do some long-term planning), and recurring tasks (great for things you have to do every day). A lot of other apps, like Trello and Asana, have similar functions, but I was able to test them out for free using Todoist.
To optimize my experience, I used every unique tool Todoist has to offer — and it paid off.
First, I entered every task I could think of into the app. Then, I used the project-sorting feature to organize them into groups: social media, articles, video, etc. The color-coding feature allowed me to assign meaning to each task and prioritize my most immediate projects. I asked myself, “What am I actually going to complete today?” If I didn’t plan on getting it done, I used the scheduling function to give it later due date.
Finally, I set up my recurring tasks. It was a relief, knowing I would never have to schedule them again — the app would do it for me. (Though, you can do something similar on most digital calendars.)
Thinking strategically about what I’d be able to accomplish in a given time frame allowed me to sidestep some of my usual indecision and the anxiety that accompanies it. Rather than staring at a list of 30 tasks I could potentially complete in the next five hours, I narrowed it down to my top 12, which was much easier to comprehend. The app also allowed me to drag tasks up and down and reorder them by priority throughout the day.
Tasks assigned: 12
Tasks completed: 11
Great for organizing lots of tasks (including short and longer-term ones)
Scheduling recurring tasks frees up brain space
Hard to track in-progress tasks
This method is good for… techies, people who love using their phones and have A LOT of tasks to organize, or who are working on a variety of projects.
Would I do it again? I loved the unique functionalities a digital app offers. But it was harder to keep track of everything I had accomplished — once you complete a task, it vanishes into the ether. (The paid version of Todoist resolves this.) Clicking a checkmark on a screen was also less satisfying than crossing a task off my paper list — a factor that is, apparently, very important to me. Lastly, a digital app can seem like a glamorous version of a digital calendar: easier to use and more visually pleasing. But in the end, it offers similar tools. All in all, I still prefer a paper list over a digital one.
Thursday: Make three lists.
On Thursday, I went a little bit wild. I made THREE to-do lists.
In her article, “Taming the Epic To-Do List,” executive coach Allison Rimm writes that one to-do list is not adequate for managing our very complicated lives. “Our lists are crammed with urgent priorities we must get done immediately, important tasks we’re afraid of forgetting because they have no specific due date, and basic tasks that we add to the list because it makes us feel good to check something off,” she explains.
Basically, we have more tasks on our to-do list than we can ever imagine completing. When this happens, we get caught up in a never-ending cycle of completing the easiest and most urgent ones, and fail to finish the ones that are most important. Instead of working off of one long list, Rimm suggests keeping three. List #1 is for important non-time-sensitive tasks (aka things you need to do eventually but not today). List #2 is for tasks you need to complete today. List #3 is for tasks that have been on your to-do list forever, but that you’re never going to get done.
Once you have all three lists, start with list #2. Schedule the tasks you need to get done today on your calendar (similar to what I did on Monday). Then, take list #1 and schedule those tasks for future dates. By scheduling your tasks by priority, you’re acknowledging that your time is a valuable, finite resource. You’re more likely to complete meaningful work and throw away work that doesn’t really need to be done.
Scheduling List #2 was much more challenging. Whether it was the two extra meetings on my calendar or the bowl of comforting chili I ate for lunch, this tactic didn’t give me the support to power through the day like some of the other methods had. I need extra motivational support to get me through short-term tasks, and this approach seemed to lend itself better to the long-term.
Tasks assigned: 12
Tasks completed: 8
Keeps you organized
Narrows down your list
Relieves anxiety about future projects
All the scheduling can get overwhelming
Didn’t help motivate me in the moment
Easy to lose physical lists (if you choose that method)
This method is good for… people who have competing priorities, who love crossing easy items off their list (a little too much), or who don’t need much support to stay focused.
Would I do it again? I personally wouldn’t use this method long-term. I like to write my lists down on paper, and keeping track of all three was difficult. There is, however, one aspect of this method that was genius: List #3. Go through your to-do list right now and make a list of all the tasks you will probably never complete. You won’t regret it.
What’s My Verdict?
The “do one thing” method made me feel more productive and in control than the others. But it was really best for completing my most immediate tasks. Moving forward, I’m going to combine it with Todoist, my digital task manager, which is better for scheduling important tasks that are due down the line.
I confess: My verdict is entirely based on my own preferences, strengths, and flaws. No one method is really better than the other — what works for you will depend on your own quirks, habits, and what you’re trying to accomplish. So experiment! And make sure to leave some blank space on your calendar to relax. (Burnout is real.)
Remember: If you don’t finish everything on your to-do list today, there’s always tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
By Kelsey Alpaio