Marijana Stojanović is an experienced productivity writer who loves trying out new self-improvement apps — especially those that gamify your life. Aside from writing tips to help busy people not stress out over work, she has a keen interest in movies, video game design, and translation.
To-do lists are like a superb productivity machinery that can turn your life and career around, but only when you do it right.
The reality, though, is often the sad abandonment of to-do lists, because we can’t seem to build a habit.
In this article, we’ll dive into the more psychological aspects of why we can’t stick to a list of tasks, and how ANYONE can do it, with the right tricks. 🪄
As a little bit of help, we have Parks and Recreation’s productivity powerhouse Leslie Knope as inspiration. 😉
Why Can’t I Stay True To My To-Do Lists?
You probably already have the building blocks for a quality to-do system: a digital or physical planner, calendars, colorful pens, and dozens of available to-do list apps.
All you need is, well… cement. Something to keep those blocks from falling apart.
Here is why: you can try so many different tools, but still never build a productive habit. Well, that’s because unless there’s genuine motivation and discipline sandwiched in there, your building blocks will be useless. 😬
When your tools are backed by a healthy mindset, there’s nothing you can’t do! The satisfaction and the end of a productive day will become a regular thing you’ll enjoy.
So, what are the secrets of a solid to-do system? 🤔
Tips on How To Build a Good To-Do System
There are several things that affect how well-built your to-do system is.
Take a look, because you never know which ones could have been troubling you all along!
1. Find the right motivator
Everyone needs a goal to push them towards finishing their daily tasks. However, motivation can come from different sources!
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
The best example of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation is language learning; some people learn a language because they like it and want to speak it, while others may want to travel or move to a country where this language is spoken.
You can do the same for your to-do list. Either:
A: Set a larger goal for the week. As you write out your to-do list, make sure the tasks align with the goal. Keep it as a reminder of why you need to stay consistent.
B: Turn list-making into an enjoyable process with some music, colorful writing tools, and snacks. Treat it as productivity self-care.
Include a reward system ✨💎
Small rewards for a job well-done can be a great motivation boost.
Some are even embedded in the apps we use! If you’ve ever played a smartphone game, you’ve noticed how they use sounds and animations to applaud you for finishing a level.
Productivity apps have learned a thing or two from games, and some make your to-do lists more fun by gamifying them. ClickUp itself has celebratory confetti animation pop up every time you clear a list of tasks or achieve a goal. 🥳
Find a long-term goal
Think of to-do lists as stepping stones towards a bigger, more positive change in your life.
If you wanted to learn Italian to a certain level, you would make sure that you put in the work every day, for at least 15 minutes. Because after 30 days, you know you will be much better than when you started. 🌱
In much the same way, identify your larger goals, and set a timeframe. To-do lists without an end goal in sight can only take you so far.
As a bonus, you lessen the odds of abandoning the habit.
2. Personalize your to-do list
Since we all have different motivators, preferences, and interests, different things will stimulate our brain into keeping a productive streak.
We mostly respond to visual cues like colors, shapes, and sounds. That’s why to-do list apps find so much success.
So, depending on what would keep your brain happy and engaged, you can do two things:
- If you prefer the touch of paper, smell of markers, and generally wish to cut down on your screen time, then a traditional to-do list is definitely for you. Draw in the corners of pages, use stickers and colorful pens. There are no rules!
- Digital to-do lists are great if you want all the colors and customization, but don’t have the time or patience. Nowadays, apps such as ClickUp offer countless color schemes, to-do list templates, or sound choices to personalize your to-do list at the tap of a button
3. Personalize your workflow
It’s more than just writing down things you need to do in a day. Your to-do list is impacted by how you do your tasks, what you’re good at, what takes more effort, and most of all, how well you manage time.
Find out what kind of structure of a to-do list works best for you
❓Do you work better if tasks are written as a whole or broken down into steps?
Like a shopping list saying: “buy carbonara ingredients” vs a list of individual ingredients
❓Do you have plenty of deadlines, or is your work less urgent?
This can help you determine how detailed your list should be.
❓Do you plan ahead, or do you have a tendency to add tasks on the go?
If tasks and new activities can crop up during the day, then you may need a to-do list app, so you can add tasks on the fly (when you’re not at your computer).
Get into the habit of time tracking
Time tracking is the best way to see how productive you are and what about your to-do lists could be sabotaging your productivity.
You might find out that you don’t work so well under pressure. In this case, you can then choose to keep your time blocks more flexible.
Tracking your time may help you spot the red flags earlier on. Take meetings for example. you may find that client work or meetings take up so much time. To prevent burnout, perhaps you can dedicate a day to get through all your meetings so that you can maximize and plan your days better.
Put something fun on your list!
In one episode, Leslie Knope makes a list of things she is “pro”. Among the whopping 173 items, there are multiple ones that read like this:
- Re-open the toucan exhibit at Pawnee Zoo
- Find Gabe the Toucan
- More community gardens
- Ordinance 11F: To Re-pave City Sidewalks
- Budget reform
Following her example, you can make the to-do lists more fun and more likely to stick as a habit by adding a silly item or two. Like:
- “Pet the dog/cat for five minutes”
- “Play loud funk at 7 PM”
Have fun and burst that scary serious bubble we create when thinking about to-do lists! 🌈
4. Make the most out of reminders and alerts
Having a digital to-do list comes with the perk of reminders.
Reminders can work great for you without being an annoyance when working with the right app.
ClickUp, for example, allows you to customize alerts to the fullest; set attachments, customize notifications, and even assign them to others.
Sometimes we can get lost in our work, so there’s no shame in having reminders for important things or… even just to send a motivational message to yourself 💪😉
This leads us perfectly into the next segment…👇
5. Be your own biggest cheerleader
A lot of us have this ugly habit of criticizing ourselves whenever we slip up. It’s the same with to-do lists and productivity. Odds are that most of us will give up on these lists because we can’t stay consistent, or we forget to write them, or just get swamped with work.
And so you become both the strict parent and the regretful child caught in a very counterproductive internal conflict.
So, how would Leslie fix that?
Every episode, she gives compliments to her friends and coworkers for the most mundane things,and it works!
It makes her friends feel seen and appreciated, and so should you.
So, until you find a Leslie of your own, try to be your own cheerleader. Instead of being like a toxic parent who only points out mistakes, be kind to yourself—take notice when you do something good.
Like finally getting that weekly to-do list done.
Or checking off every task at the end of the day.
Write a compliment to yourself at the bottom of the list, no matter how silly it seems. Because it comes from a place of genuine care.
Where To Go From Here? 🤔
Start by accepting imperfect to-do lists.
Get used to making mistakes. Cheer yourself on, instead of beating yourself up.
Learn to love the process and make list writing enjoyable, because it’s part of self-improvement.
And last, but not least, don’t stress.