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Introduction to university study: To do lists

“In order for it to be helpful, a to-do list must be realistic. A realistic to-do list for a given time slot will contain only those task stages that you feel you can complete within that time slot."

Peter Levin,  Skilful Time Management!

To-do lists: some people love them and some people hate them. If you choose to use them, the important thing is to be realistic with them. Only about 40% of what goes on a to-do list ever gets done, so make sure it is the most important 40%!

Tips for using to-do lists effectively:

Two to-do lists

Have two lists

Keep a master list of all the tasks you need to get done long term (assignments, important jobs etc) and a daily list for each day. The daily list will include several tasks that contribute to tasks on the master list (read a paper, collect a book from the library etc) as well as other things that are incidentals (go for a run, put out the bins etc).

Student writing in bed

Write your daily list at the end of the previous day

Writing a list can be a form of procrastination that stops you starting the actual work - so write your daily list at the end of the day before. This can be just after you stop work for the day or just before you go to sleep. Refer to your master list as you create your daily one to keep you on track. Include at least one task that sets you up for something to do the following day (finding papers to read is a good example).

A rifle sight - indicating targeted work

Be specific

Don't just put tasks like "Work on essay". Be really specific i.e. "Read and make notes on 5 papers", or "plan the points of each paragraph". This will make it much easier to start each task as you will not have to think about what you need to do.

List with large number 7

Don't have more than 7 items on your daily list

The more items you have, the less likely you are to complete them all. 7 seems to be the optimum number.

Fewer items means you can concentrate on some tasks for longer so your concentration isn't broken. That isn't to say that you cannot have 5-10 minute breaks during these tasks though. It just means you can get into the flow and not worry about having lots of other tasks that are not getting done.

list with numbers rather than bullet points

Prioritise the list 

If you are using on online tool, then you can easily reorder your list, but if you are using paper and pen then you may want to use highlighters to indicate priorities or just add a number alongside them to indicate the order in which you will tackle them.

  • Give top priority to jobs you can do in 5 minutes or less. Just get them out of the way right from the off - this is both motivational and stops them being distractions later.
  • Give next priority to the jobs where you need to really think - you are more alert earlier in the day. Ideally these should be jobs related to your most important task (MIT). This MIT is the job that would cause you the most trouble if you did not complete it - at university this is usually your next or most highly-weighted assignment.
  • Give least priority to tasks that could, at a push, be done tomorrow. 

List with items ticked off

Have a 'done' list for each stage of bigger tasks

Large tasks on your master list are broken into smaller tasks for your daily list - so keep a record of which tasks are completed. This is very motivational as you can see what you have achieved not just what you still have to do.


'Warning - not done' sign

Be realistic about your undone tasks

If any of your daily tasks are not completed, you have four choices:

  1. Move them onto tomorrow's list.
  2. Return them to your master list if there is no time tomorrow.
  3. Ditch them - perhaps they don't need doing after all.
  4. See if someone else can do them (not for your uni work!!).