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How to write a good to-do list

Do you typically sigh at the end of the workday, pushing the remaining items on your to-do list to the next day? Are there even items on the list that have already been pushed back for several days? Or do you struggle to get started with the list in the morning and end up working through it late at night? If you recognize yourself in this, it might be because the items on your list are poorly formulated.

The to-do list is a basic tool in most students’ day-to-day life and it’s extra important for those working at home, who are left to rely on their self-discipline. A good to-do list should consist of small subgoals that take a maximum of one hour each to complete, not big goals such as “finish the take-home exam”, “read the course literature” or “study”. More specifically, each subgoal should meet the following four criteria:

  • Relevant
  • Concrete
  • Realistic
  • Completable

Look at your to-do list for today's study session. How does it measure up against the criteria? Perhaps there is a point that can be clarified.


The first criterion is that the subgoal should be relevant. It’s easy to get distracted when working from home or on your computer and to start doing things that are important to get done, just not the most important right now – for example cleaning or creating the world’s best plan in photoshop or getting started with that book that’s been gathering dust for years. In this situation, you must be honest with yourself: what needs to be done right now?


The second criterion is that the subgoal should be concrete, meaning that you should know exactly how you’re going to execute it. A lot of people might, for instance, write a subgoal stating to read a specific amount of pages, but forget to define what reading means in this particular context. Does it mean skimming through a chapter in order to get a general idea of what it contains or does it mean understanding enough of the content for you to be able to discuss it in a seminar or to complete the related exercises? How much and in what way are you going to take notes while you’re reading? Are you going to read the entire text with the same attention to detail or are there some passages that are extra important?


The third criterion is that the subgoal should be realistic, meaning it is reasonable for you to comfortably achieve it within the time you have allocated, while also being sufficiently comprehensive to require immediate action. A realistic subgoal makes you feel adequately motivated. It’s also important to vary your activities and not sit with the same kind of tasks for too many hours on end. Perhaps it’s not realistic to read the same book with maintained concentration for eight hours?  


Finally, a good subgoal should be completable. The moment you cross an item off your list is when the brain gets its reward and a push forward into the next task. It works like a game: you defeat a boss, feel the happiness of competence and become motivated to take on the next level. Therefore, it’s better to write down what concepts you should be able to define after a reading session than to write down which pages to read. It’s entirely possible to read 100 pages of a text without learning anything from it.

If you find it difficult to know exactly what needs to be done, what’s realistic or what the result is going to be, it can be a good idea to set a time goal instead: that you should with sit with a certain task in a certain way for 25 min and only afterward are you allowed to note down what has been completed. This is one way to evaluate and understand how long a task takes or what it is you’re actually doing when you’re studying.