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How to write an effective to-do list

Do you usually sigh at the end of the workday and leave the last items on your to-do list for the next day? Are there already things on today’s list that you should have done yesterday? Or do you struggle to get started on the list in the morning and work late into the night instead? If this describes you, it may be because the points on your to-do list are worded vaguely.

A to-do list is a basic tool in most students' everyday lives and it is equally important when you work from home and are left to your own devices. A good to-do list should consist of small sub-goals that take a maximum of one hour to do, not big goals such as "finish the take-home exam", "read the textbook" or "study". More specifically, each sub-goal should meet the following four criteria:

  • Relevant
  • Concrete
  • Realistic
  • Tickable

Get your to-do list out for the day’s studying. How does it meet the criteria? Maybe there is a point that can be clarified.


The first criterion is that the sub-goal must be relevant. When you work from home, it's easy to get distracted and start doing something that is probably good to have out the way, but maybe not right now – for example, cleaning or doing the world's best planning in Photoshop, or reading that book on the bookshelf that has been there for years. It is important to be honest with yourself here: what needs to be done now?


The second criterion is that the sub-goals have to be concrete, that is, you know exactly how to achieve it. Many people may write that they should read a certain number of pages, but forget to define what it means to read in this particular context. Do you need to skim read to get an overview of a certain chapter or do you need to understand enough to be able to discuss the content in a seminar, or complete exercises? To what extent and in what way should you take notes while you are reading? Do you need to read the whole text carefully or are there passages that are a little bit more important?


The third criterion is that the sub-goals must be realistic, that is, you have a reasonable amount of time set aside to do it, but at the same time its scope entails that you need to start immediately. A realistic sub-goal makes you feel reasonably motivated. It is also important that you vary your activities and you do not spend too much time on the same type of task. Maybe reading the same book while trying to stay focused for eight hours is not realistic?  


Finally, a good sub-goal has to be tickable. When you tick an item off your list, your brain feels rewarded and prompts you to take on the next task. It is like a game: you won the round, you feel proud of yourself and it motivates you to go to the next level. It is therefore better to write down which concepts you should be able to define after a reading session than to write down which pages you should have read. It is quite possible to read 100 pages without learning anything. 

If you have difficulty knowing exactly what to do, what is realistic or how the results will turn out, it might be a good idea to set a target instead: that you must work on a particular task in a certain way for 25 minutes and only after that summarise what was done. It can be a way to evaluate and understand how long tasks take, or what you actually do when you study.