How often do you actually finish a to-do list you created?

If you are like most people the answer is: rarely.

The problem is that most people write really crappy to-do lists. And when it comes to getting things done, a crappy list is often worse than having no list at all.

A great to-do list, on the other hand, will make it easier for you to get work done.

3 simple rules to write great tasks in your todo list
Learn how to write great tasks for your to-do list

Master the art of writing good tasks

There are a few key things to get right if you want to write a great to-do list.

In this post I will go over one of those key things: how to write good tasks.

Tasks are the meat of every to-do list. And how you write a task has a big influence on how easy (or hard) it will be for you to complete the task once you encounter it on your to-do list. So writing great tasks is a vital skill for you to master on your road to becoming a to-do list slayer.

What makes a task great?

The goal is to create a tasty task. A tasty task is one that you immediately want to do when you look at it. This happens when it’s super clear what the task entails and you feel confident that you can actually complete the task

Email Mark to ask what his favorite cake is

A tasty task (not just because of the cake)

On the other hand, a badly written task puts you off doing it immediately because it triggers feelings of uncertainty and/or overwhelm. And it is only natural to want to avoid things that make us feel bad.

Build Website

A vague and huge task, eww!

I rarely look at a task and want to do it immediately… what to do?
If you suffer from procrastination issues (and most of us do), then you can feel put off even from the most well written task. The task itself just causes too many negative feelings. Writing good tasks will definitely help to reduce the negative feelings somewhat, but you’ll also have work on fixing the procrastination at its source. More on how to do that coming soon!

So, here are three basic rules to stick to in order to create tasty tasks:

1) Start with a Verb

action words

Every task should start with a verb. This makes it very easy for the brain to understand what “to do” and shift into action mode.

The more specific the verb, the better. Ideally you should immediately get some kind of mental image of you doing the task as soon as you look at the verb.




Verb-less tasks, what do I need to do!?

Sticking to this rule will also help you to keep most of your tasks single action steps and to not create tasks that really should be projects when they include a series of smaller steps.

Design Website

Write essay

Plan wedding

Multi step tasks that really should be projects.

Here is a list of some great verbs to use in your tasks:

  • Brainstorm
  • Buy
  • Call
  • Clean
  • Code
  • Decide
  • Design
  • Discuss
  • Edit
  • Email
  • Fill out
  • Find
  • Finish
  • Organize
  • Read
  • Research
  • Schedule
  • Write

2) Keep them Short

bite-sized treats

A task should take you at most one hour to complete. The bigger a task is, the more intimidating it will look when it’s time to get it done. You really want a task to be bite-sized.

Especially difficult tasks or ones you are dreading benefit from being very short. You are much more likely to start on a task that will only take you 10min rather than 1 hour to complete.

Use time estimates in your to-do list to help you keep tasks small. Time estimates have a ton of additional benefits and can really boost your effectiveness.

time estimates make a nasty task more appealing
Ugh, cleaning toilets, but hey this task only takes 5 minutes!

But doesn’t a task just take as long as it takes?
Any task can be broken down into smaller steps to make smaller tasks out of it. This will make a large task more manageable. Learning how to break down a large task is another important skill to master.

3) Make them Specific and Clear

no question marks allowed

A good task is so crystal clear that you immediately know where to start when looking at it. So make sure each task is specific and includes enough context that it’s still clear what to do even when you look at the task a few days after having created it.

When you look at a task there should be absolutely no confusion about what to do. No one likes the feeling of uncertainty. So avoid creating vague or unclear tasks, or else you will want to avoid them as soon as you see them.

Read Chapter 4 of History Book

Make a sketch of new header menu

Do Math Problems 4.3 and 4.4

Crystal clear tasks

Another part of being “clear” is that you should always know when a task is considered “completed”. For tasks like sending an email or filling out an application, the end of the task is pretty obvious. But beware tasks that have no clear end.

You can always create an end to a task by adding a time limit (this is called time boxing a task). Check out the examples of good tasks below to see a few time boxed tasks.

Write on book for 40min

Do research online for new article for 20min

Stretch for 10min

Clean apartment for 15min

Examples of time boxed tasks

If a task is on the complex side, it can help to add subtasks to it that outline the steps to take. For tasks that need a lot of context it’s a good idea to attach a note to a task with more info inside. (Marvin supports both subtasks and notes)

Check out these examples of examples of good and bad tasks. Try to imagine encountering these tasks in your to-do list. What feelings would they trigger? Can you tell the difference?

Examples of Tasty Tasks

Brainstorm what goes on landing page for 40m

Schedule meeting with Jim for Friday

Read Chapter 4 of Intro to Psychology

Do Math Problems 2.1 and 2.2

Edit article “How to plan your day”

Clean bathroom

Examples of Bad Tasks

Website Design

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Writing good tasks is an essential skill to master if you want to gain control over your to-do list. A well written task has a much higher chance of getting completed than a poorly written one.
Three basic rules for writing great tasks
  • Each task should start with a verb
  • Each task should take a maximum of one hour to complete
  • Each task should be specific and clear so that you still know exactly what to do even if you look at the task a few weeks later
Share in the comments

Take a look at your to-do list. How many of your tasks follow all three rules? Share in the comments.

Also published on Medium.

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