5 Steps to Craft a Better To-Do List

Ah, the daily To-Do List… the heart and soul of any planning system, but especially the Bullet Journal. I often get emails asking me how I decide what goes on my to-do list each day, how I prioritize it, and how I decide what to tackle first each day.

A lot of you are struggling with this bit every day, trying (like I have) to find the perfect balance of “Oh my goodness, I have so much to do!” and “Ok, this is what really needs to get done today.”

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. The method that I explain in detail 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.

To-Do List

5 STEPS TO CRAFT A BETTER TO-DO LIST

1. Have a “Master” List

My “master” list is what I often refer to as my “brain dump”. It is a list of non-urgent tasks that are not immediately time-sensitive. Earlier this month, I decided to house my entire “Brain Dump” in its own notebook pictured below.

This is my "Brain Dump" notebook. It serves as my perpetual master task list.
Once I tackle a task, I 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) right here.

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

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

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.

Every day, I select my "top 3" to-do list items for the day. Theses are the 3 items that as long as they get done, I'll feel accomplished for the day!

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

Every master (or even daily) to-do list has a few tasks on it that we’ve been meaning to do 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.

See all those arrows? Don't let them get you down! Here's how to craft a better to-do list:

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

I often preach the importance of routine, and brace yourself — I’m about to do it again!

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 Brain Dump list as needed.

I'm breaking down my daily planning routine for you step by step today!

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.

Related Article: My Planning Routine

BONUS TIP: Create 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:
(you can click on these to view them larger if you wish)

If/Then List If/Then List

As you can see, 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.

What are some ways that you prioritize your day? I’d love to know, so drop me a line below :)

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 also runs a successful sticker shop on Etsy – Boho Berry Paperie.
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  • elisha mae

    so glad i found your blog from lily pebbles – its so good for getting motivated on slower days!

    elisha-mae I wear this?
    http://www.elisha-mae.co.uk

  • Your blog posts and youtube videos are really nice! This so inspiring! Thanks for the tips!

  • This is such a inspiration! I love your posts!

  • Glorymar Figueroa Reyes

    I have started with the HIT technique at work… I have yet to incorporate it to my personal planning and side hustle planning. Let’s see how it goes.

  • Oh I love #4! Too often I just keep migrating the same task over and over again without stopping to evaluate why it keeps getting migrated. I love the idea that I should reflect on whether it can be broken down into smaller pieces. Great post!

    • I was totally in the same boat, Beth! Really taking the time to analyze the tasks that I’m migrating has helped me to get more done in the long run for sure :)

  • Ruby Naz

    Love your If/Then posts!

  • Ivanna

    Wow, those If/Then posts are a great idea. I also never entirely understood the Brain Dump page. I like that too!

    • Thanks Ivanna! I thought it was about time I explained that one a little better :)

  • These are all great tips! Having a solid list is sooo helpful. I’ve recently started making my to-do list ultra specific — like breaking every task into it’s most simple parts — which makes the list look really long, but everything on it is much easier to do. At the end of the day I feel awesome for having checked so many things off, and even if I didn’t finish a project in its entirety, I can see all the steps I did take towards it, which is really helpful, mentally. I love the idea of having an if/then list, also! I feel like that’s just what I need for when I’m really low energy. :)

  • These are such great ideas. Are you using bullet journaling? That’s what it looks like to me but I haven’t tried using that method yet. I just got into the MAMBI planner this year so I’m definitely into lists and just being more organized!

    • I sure am! I have a LOT of posts about Bullet Journaling if you’re curious… There’s a tab for “Bullet Journal” at the top of the page if you want to learn more :)

  • That’s very thorough and just what I needed. Love the way your pages look. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • I like the idea of the If/Then lists! :)

  • Such a great idea to have the energy and sluggish lists! That way, no matter how you are feeling you can find something that suits.

  • Such a great idea to have the energy and sluggish lists! That way, no matter how you are feeling you can find something that suits.

  • Jamie

    Having an alternative list for energetic and sluggish days is a great idea! I used to plan what I could do on a normal day, but then I’d have bad days where I could barely get out of bed. Now that I’m tracking my slumps, I can plan more appropriately so I don’t have the added pressure of feeling like I failed when I have a bad day and can’t finish a normal day’s list.

  • Kristen Doyle

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Kara! What a great informative post. I appreciate all the info you shared for sure!

  • So many amazing tips in here! I have brain dump pages in my BuJo, where I download everything that threatens to overwhelm my mind, and then go about picking out tasks I can accomplish in a day. And I think being specific is the most important thing to keep in mind: tasks that are too vague never get done around here :) Thanks for sharing your tips, Kara!

  • I always love when you include the “why does this work” part… loved this <3

  • ele nuke (elenuke)

    Kara, thank you for all great tips! My biggest problem (despite my English language ;)) is planning a to do list for the next day. I love filling in monthly tracker, planning budget, but my to do list are just plans and I just rewrite them for next day or week.
    I think after what I red it gets better! :) Thank you!

  • This is a great article. Many of my followers cite not having time to plan and create to-do lists. I’ve recently started showing how they can incorporate bullet journaling into their punctuated planning styles. I also stress, careful planning will create more time to live more authentically.

  • Venassa Smith

    This is very helpful! I’ve been struggling lately with a lot of things I want to get done and no idea how to organize them all. I’m going to start on a ‘brain dump’ right now.

  • Love your post! So many great tips! I just published a post today about my monthly planning routine – in which I also mentioned you, because my habit tracker was definitely inspired by you <3 – and am pretty happy about my monthly planning routine. So now, it is time to handle the daily routine. So your post came right in time :) Thank you for always bring new ideas and inspiration to my life <3
    xx Ronja
    http://www.sothisiswhat.com
    { CREATE THE LIFE YOU LOVE }

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  • I so needed these tips… I’ve been having some trouble being productive and getting things done… I make lists… but these tips will really help me make better lists and actually get things done. Thanks!

  • Ali

    Again more fantastic tips! I’m going to try a few of these. I find myself lately having a problem figuring out what to put on my list and what not to. Honestly, I feel like I keep putting things on my list off as well, pushing them to another day and then on that day I push it again. Might have to put them on my top three list for the next day from now on. Also love the idea of If/Then lists. Low energy days, I’m sort of like you, I finish a few things then I relax the rest of the day. Those days it feels like I don’t get enough done. So I’m going to try this as well. Great post!

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  • Emily Scott

    I actually do almost everything you suggested the the If/Then plan is new to me. Love how you explained you can have one for blah moments and moments when you have a lot of energy…like right now…when it’s 1:30 am and I can’t sleep :) I may just go make an If/Then list right now…

    • They are definitely handy lists to have! I have found myself using them daily already, and will make them a staple in my BuJos from now on :)

  • Beautiful planner! Wow!

    I’m wondering if it would help to force myself to actually answer “Why didn’t I get this done” to hold my feet to the fire. The slipping tasks are probably my biggest problem (or maybe conversely planning too much (aka biting off more than I can chew)).

    High/Low Energy lists, hmm, I wonder how I can roll that into my system. I’m currently using Toodledo.

    • Thank you! I think that the reflection aspect is what really started to improve my daily to-do lists. It has forced me to think realistically in terms of what I can get done in a single day without burning myself out too quickly. I hope it helps you too :)

  • ThatGeekyGirlfriend

    Revisiting all of my methods as I (impatiently) wait for my new Leuchtturm 1917 :D. Your blog is my instant go-to.

    • Yay! That reflection time will definitely prepare you for your gorgeous new notebook! :)

  • Ashley Crowe

    Kara!! Insightful as always :). What I am struggling with is using a daily or weekly spread. I started out with weekly, but after watching last Friday’s video and seeing your Brain Dump list and dailies I think that might work better for me. My biggest issue is if you have a list of things you know you need to get done this week (but they don’t have set day) do you put them on your Brain Dump list? Your brain dump list seems pretty short (lucky you!) so I was wondering where you put those type of items…..

    Example:
    I just made my list and have things like clean out my car, clean out the fridge, make a deposit, make phone calls… I know I cant do all these today on top of my top 3 so where do I stick them so they don’t live in my head?

    Thanks :)!! Ashley

    • Hey Ashley! I have been running into that same issue for a while now. This week, I decided to give a weekly spread a try. (I’m still doing my dailies, this is just a way to see my whole week at a glance). Maybe this will spark some ideas for you?

      • Ashley Crowe

        YES!! PERFECT!! I just watched today’s video! Thanks so much!! You rock.

  • njguy54

    Great article! For years I’ve struggled to come up with a workable (for me) system for to-do lists. It took me a long time, for instance, to get in the habit of creating lists with small, actionable tasks that are part of broader projects.

    My smartphone solves one of the problems I’ve had, which is that I never have the list with me when I need it. These days, I would no more leave the house without my phone than without pants, so that problem is solved. After playing with a lot of list apps, I’ve found that Things works the best for me. One feature I like the best is that you can post-date tasks so that they don’t appear until I need to work on them, be they days, weeks or months in the future. Things also delivers notifications —

    Another feature that Things supports is separate project lists that roll up into a “today” list. This way, you can use the “If/then” lists discussed here — which I think I’m going to start doing.

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  • Emily @ Life on Food

    Love this. I live by my to do list and planner. Color and pictures are key for me too!

  • Kimberly M. Robert

    Thanks Kara, this will help through my day… there some days where I feel i’m dragging behind and I feel the only thing I have accomplished is going to the fridge… but the days when I have an organized list…which I need to make a routine the night before…awesome tip….then I am not going to that fridge,,,, if i am bored I eat….overeater!!!, I weighed 450lbs in 2007 and weigh now 235lbs, I have been as low as 200 but boredom has crept in and fridge is becoming my friend again…I know the key is to keep busy… I find when I’m writing I have to make myself stop and make time for eating so that is the key… but I was struggling with keeping my tasks in line with my day and keeping myself on task… but if I make the task list for the next day a priority the night before; fridge will be what it’s supposed to be a cold box to hold food…not my friend!!!! LOL Thanks for all the great video’s and tips and keep the inspiration coming…thank you…when I am down, I re-watch one of your video’s and get inspired again.

    • Aw, thanks so much Kimberly! And congrats on the weight loss, that’s incredible! :)

  • Angela Steinkamp

    Oooh! I love the bonus tip. If/then lists sound like exactly what I need to create, Sometimes there are just too many options, but they are always in my head. Very cool. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome, Angela! I like to get as much as I can out of my head and onto paper. It helps to have that easy reference when I need it :)

  • Jill Kane

    I saw on your brain dump list that you wanted to do a Philly bujo meetup… I AM IN PHILLY AND WOULD LOVE THIS!!! <3

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