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Five Steps to Tame Your To Do List

Updated on February 24, 2016

I used to be an adjunct English professor. What that means is that while I was part time, I was part time at multiple institutions. The most classes I ever taught in one semester is 10 – and an average full-time faculty member would teach four to five. On top of that, I was taking classes to try to get a full-time position, plus there was family and friends to keep up with. Needless to say, my to do lists got too long to be productive. Because of that, I learned some tricks to help make sure that I actually got done what needed to.


A/B/C Your List

Remember your alphabet song and sing it to yourself while you go over your to do list. You want to pick things out for your A, B, and C lists.

A means that you need to do it now. Or maybe yesterday. It’s the list of things that need to get done or something bad with happen. Things like paying your insurance or turning in a report to your boss.

The B list is for things that should get done, but if they have to get put off, it’s not a big deal. Maybe you have to write a paper for class, but you still have a few extra days. You know that working on it that day might help, but if you really don’t have the time, it won’t really suffer.

The C list is for things that you’d like to get to, but, well, it’s not that important that they get done. Nothing will be affected if you don’t get to them. You’d like to try to finish reading that book because you promised you’d loan it to a friend, but if they have to wait an extra day or two, they’re not going to stop being your friend. It’s something that’d be nice to accomplish, but not getting through it won’t be bad.

The one thing to consider if you find yourself adding a lot of items to the C list is whether or not you need that C list. Is it really helpful? Are you continually moving things over from day to day because they aren’t getting done because they’re on the C list? You may want to either make those things more important or remove them entirely.


Figure Out the Time

Figure out how much time each item on the list requires. I would often make a list, then go back and figure out how much time I actually needed to complete the list. It was normal for me to require a 30 hour day in order to get through the things I had down as needing to be done. Clearly, that’s not going to happen. That’s when I would go into one of the other methods and use that to help me determine what needed to be done and then I could re-do the list of how much time I needed that day.

When you discover how much time you need, then schedule out your day. You need ten hours to get your work done? How can you fit that in? Maybe you can double things up – you want to exercise and read, why not hop on an exercise bike and do both at once? Can you get someone else to cook or maybe even just order in a pizza? Being able to figure out your schedule can help you stay focused and get through that to do list without being overwhelmed.

Order of Operations

How are the things on the list related? Do you need to finish writing an article before you can deal with emails because one of those emails is submitting the finished piece? Have to read a book before you can write a paper for class? Need to write up a job description before you go talk to HR? Go through the list and put it in order of operations.

Do items on the list not necessarily need to be done in a particular order? Well, in that case, it might be time to look at other methods of organizing the list, or you can simply put them in order of importance. Consider it a “if I failed to do this” list instead of a to do list. What would have the most noticeable and most disastrous effect if it wasn’t done? That’s your order of operations.



Sometimes a to do list can be extremely boring. Who wants to do all those things? They aren’t fun. No one wants to adult if they don’t have to. So don’t let it overwhelm you with things you don’t want to do. Instead, set it up to rewards yourself.

If I do this, then I get to do that. Make the list include fun items. If I can get through my quarterly report, then I get to go to the gym for an hour. If I get all the laundry done, then I can knit my scarf and watch a movie. When the good things are on your to do list, then you get the double pleasure of doing something you like and being able to cross it off!

What do you find to be the most effective way to tame your to do list?

See results


It sounds counter-intuitive to say to stop looking at the list and breathe, but you’d be amazed at how helpful it can be. Sometimes you just need to stop and relax without keeping that list in mind. Take some time to meditate or do some yoga – both of them have plenty of options in YouTube or you can find apps that you can use to help if you aren’t familiar with them. Sitting around and breathing can be what help you to feel like you know what you’re doing and you’re in charge again.


This is *not* a way to tame your list, but it’s sometimes the only option, so I wanted to include it. Some time ago, I read a very useful book titled ‘The Art of Procrastination.’ It taught me that while procrastination is unhealthy – almost as unhealthy as writing lists that you know you’ll never get done – it can be helpful sometimes. Sometimes putting things off is the best way to deal with them. If they aren’t important, they may disappear or they may get handled another way. If you need to continually procrastinate, you may want to reconsider what it is you think you can or will get done. Maybe a job or life change is in order if you can’t find time to get things done.


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