Productivity Tip: Weekly To-Do Lists FTW

Hi my name is Lindsay, and I am a to-do list maker. I have always been a to-do list maker, and probably always will be. To-do lists are what keep me organized and help make projects less stressful. Making a to-do list (or action plan) at the outset of a project gives me momentum to continue because it seems like I have already accomplished something. Making to-do lists keep me calm when I can see something that I’m working on start to spin out of control. I love to-do lists almost as much as I love a good deadline.

Yes, I am Type A. Proudly Type A. No shame in this game.

But not all to-do lists are created equal. Some are little too rigid and make me feel like I’m micromanaging myself. Some are a little too broad and lose the urgency necessary for a good to-do list. In this post, I’ll go over one to-do list strategy that has made me insanely more productive in both my 9-5 and side hustler lives.

The Too Rigid To-Do List

When I started my career as a high school counselor, I began to make daily to-do lists. Every morning I would write out 5-7 tasks that I had to accomplish that day, then check them off as they were completed. This practice was born out of necessity because of the nature of the role. Administrators always know where teachers are and what they are doing: they’re in their classrooms teaching students. This is not the case for counselors, whose workload is much more fluid. Couple this with a cash-strapped school district that didn’t value its non-teaching staff anyway, and you have an environment where you have to prove your worth to survive. The daily to-do list was my strategy for showing my value to the school and district. If there was ever a question about what I had done on a certain day, I had the receipts.

When I stopped being a high school counselor and went back to school for my doctorate, I kept up this practice. By this point, making daily to-do lists was a habit. Also, since it had been successful in my job, I figured it would keep me on task while going to school. This proved to be false.

In this new environment, making daily to-do lists was far too rigid. I felt like I was micromanaging myself, and I hate being micromanaged! Also, I didn’t have as much pressure to 1) show my worth and 2) do things in a timely manner. While I had specific assignments and readings to complete, nothing was urgent. (Unless it was the end of the semester!) My list became a source of stress because, while I like to complete tasks, I don’t like to work for no reason. I found myself obsessing over ticking things off of the list then getting annoyed that maybe 1 out of the 5-7 things on the list had to be done that day.

It’s one thing to work ahead and set yourself up for success. It’s quite another to do busy work. My INTJ-ness means I don’t do well with the latter.

Even if you to-do list isn’t daily, it might still be too rigid for your productivity needs. If you find yourself doing any of the following, it might be time to change up your tactics and find a strategy that better suits your work style.

  • You’re stressing out over completing every task.
  • You’re struggling to come up with meaningful tasks but writing things anyway (that you then feel obligated to complete).
  • You’re regularly not completing your list, but not for lack of trying.
  • You’re doing busy work.
  • You feel yourself resenting your to-do list.

The Too Broad To-Do List

When I started trying to build ~something~ with this space after leaving an unfulfilling job, I began to make monthly to-do lists. These lists were actually hybrid, as I would add both tasks that I wanted to accomplish and goals I wanted to achieve. At the end of every month, I wrote out a list of things I wanted to do for the following month. At the close of that month, I would assess the list to see what progress I had made. It took about 4 months to realize that this was a flawed strategy.

These monthly to-do lists were far too broad to be effective. For one, the urgency that I felt while making the list was not sustainable when it came to actually accomplishing the tasks on the list. Something that made so much sense at the outset of the month was just a relic of an idea come the end. And in the interim, new ideas and projects would pop up and take precedence over the planned ones. This combo left me with a to-do list that had a bunch of incomplete tasks and a bunch of new yet less developed ideas. All bad.

This experience taught me that I need to ride the wave of momentum that I gain while creating a new to-do list and act on it ASAP. If I make the list then don’t get to the item right away, the mindset that I had when writing down the task is lost… often forever. Couple that with the ooh shiny object! approach to projects that tends to happen when I’m not 100% excited/invested in doing something, and it became utterly fruitless to make such a broad list when I knew that it wouldn’t stick.

(In retrospect, I would have been much more productive had I added deadlines to the list, but I literally just thought of that. Oh hindsight…)

Too broad to-do lists are a problem because they don’t help you get anything done. And that’s the point of such a list, right? It’s a waste of time to create something that won’t help you accomplish what you’re trying to do. Is your to-do list too broad? Here are some ways to tell:

  • You’re regularly not completing your list, but it’s because you add things along the way.
  • You don’t feel the urgency to complete the tasks on your list.
  • You forget why you added certain items to the list in the first place.
  • You don’t check in with the list as a way to check your progress.
  • The act of creating the list feels like wasted effort.

The Just Right To-Do List

(This feels very The Three Bears/heat levels of porridge, but whatever I’m going with it!)

Recently, I’ve been creating weekly to-do lists and they’re pretty amazing. They combine the urgency of the daily list with the flexibility of the monthly list, but keep my ad hoc task adding to a minimum. I’ve adopted this practice at both my 9-5 and 5-9, and the results have been very positive.

In my 9-5, the weekly to-do list has helped me manage my time better. I work in higher education, and this time of year (finals/end of semester) is pretty dead. The traffic to my office has been a slow trickle since Thanksgiving, so my workload has been more projects than face-to-face advising. (Totally fine because I’m very burned out!) It’s way too easy to spin in my chair, listen to Spotify, and read The NYT/Buzzfeed/Pinterest/Facebook all day… but I’m at work and that’s not what I’m being paid to do. With this list strategy, I can balance the work with ~not work~ and still be productive.

In my 5-9 (aka: what you’re reading right now), my weekly to-do list has helped me get back on track with the tasks that keep this thing going… like writing and promoting content. It’s not that I don’t like to do these things, but sometimes it’s too daunting to approach the work when there are other, life things happening. Keeping my lists smaller and more immediate gets me through the harder parts of this work without losing steam. I find myself being more deliberate about adding things because I’m able to keep my actual week in perspective. If I know I have a doctor’s appointment or a coaching session or the Eagles are on Thursday night instead of Sunday, I can adjust my workload accordingly.

Overall, creating a weekly to-do list has helped me achieve a better work/hustle/life balance. Taking this more holistic – and realistic – approach to structuring my time has been great so far. I’m always going to be a list maker, but I’m glad I finally found a way to do it that works for all aspects of my life where productivity is necessary.

If you’re having trouble organizing your time and keeping yourself focused while still being productive, I suggest you give weekly to-do lists a shot. Even if the 7-day time frame doesn’t work with you, picking a strategy that allows you to work in a manner that best fits how you naturally do it should be your ultimate goal. 5 or 10 could be better increments for you, but only you can figure that out. Let me know what this looks like for you in the comments!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.