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Monday, February 19, 2018

The Benefits of a To-Do List

Today is a really special day for a couple of reasons. 1 - This is my 300th blog post, which is pretty crazy. 2 - Back when I was sophomore in college, I took my first class from an instructor who actually understood the publishing process and in that class I had my first ever legit publication. While my end goal was fiction, the class was focused on writing columns and articles and reviews for magazines. It was the first class where I began learning how to actually be a professional writer. Prior, I was looking for resources--whatever I could find online--and was frankly feeling a little lost. Writing Excuses was just getting started, so I didn't have that, and the blogging boom in the industry hadn't hit yet.

One of the books that was part of the curriculum for that college class was Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Allen. I loved the book enough that I kept it and have even referred to it several times since graduating.

Last month I got a an email informing me of a new book release, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (third edition)--I immediately recognized the title--and asking if I'd be interested in hosting the author on my blog.

It only seemed right that she be here for my 300th blog post.

So if you are interested in learning how to be a professional writer, definitely check out her book. In any case, she's here to give us our writing tip for the week.

The Benefits of a To-Do List

I’m a huge fan of to-do lists. They’re one of the handiest tools to help you become a more organized, efficient writer. You can use them to help you:

1. Prioritize. When you’re juggling half-a-dozen tasks in your head, it’s difficult to decide which comes first. Writing tasks down helps you view them from a different perspective. On paper, it’s easier to see that A is more important than C, while D should move to second place, F has been dragging on far too long, and B could certainly wait for another day.

Prioritizing can involve many factors. One is deadlines. If a task is due in two weeks, it’s likely to move to the top. However, deadlines aren’t the only priority. If you’ve been meaning to research a query for a high-paying market, it may have no deadline, but every week you wait is another week away from an important career move. To-do lists also help identify tasks you’ve been procrastinating over.

2. Organize. My list doesn’t just include business tasks; it also covers the rest of my life. If I’m planning a family get-together, that ensures I don’t load up that week with a bunch of writing tasks that won’t get done.

Lists also help you assign time values to your tasks. Once you’ve written your list, you’ll immediately notice tasks that require a lot of time, versus tasks that can be done in a snap. Moving quick-response tasks to the top of my list encourages me to get them done, adding to my accomplishments without cutting into my schedule.

That doesn’t mean you should always go for the shortest job first. Don’t focus on trivial tasks to the exclusion of more important jobs!

3. Identify problems. When you maintain a list from week to week, you’ll soon notice tasks that keep “sliding” from one week to the next. You may need to take a closer look at why you’re procrastinating.

It could be that the task isn’t actually important to you. It might seem like something you should do, but it never reaches top priority. If that’s why it keeps sliding, drop it from the list entirely, or postpone it to a later time.

Conversely, you may keep postponing a project because it is important. Often, the tasks we put off the longest are those most important to us—and also the most intimidating. If you feel unready to tackle something significant, it will keep sliding until you’ve identified and dealt with your fears or concerns,

4. Recognize achievements. To me, the best part of a to-do list is turning it into a “done” list. A list helps you identify exactly what you have done with your time. It helps you identify achievements instead of berating yourself over things you haven’t done.

Some folks laugh at the idea of writing something on your list simply to cross it off. I find, however, that making a note of something I’ve done, even if it wasn’t on the original list, helps me track achievements and identify where my time was spent. Then, if I’m not able to cross off all the original items, seeing the new entry helps me understand why—and perhaps recognize that I achieved something more important than I had originally planned.

To achieve these benefits, it's important to manage a to-do list effectively. Here are some tips that can be applied to nearly any type of list:

1. It must be reasonable. A list that reads, “write my novel, clean the garage, develop lesson-plans to home-school my daughter, achieve world peace” won’t help you accomplish anything. It will simply lead to frustration. Your list should include only tasks you can hope to achieve within the timeframe.

This means distinguishing between “tasks” and “projects.” A “project” is the big picture. Writing a novel is a project; writing a chapter is a task. Some projects (“clean my desk”) are small enough to count as standalone tasks. Others need to be broken into smaller chunks. For example, writing a 2,000-word article may need to be broken into smaller tasks, such as interviews, research, outlining, writing the first draft, editing, and so on. Each task should be a separate list item.

2. It must be in line with your goals. Creating a to-do list works best when combined with your long-term vision. For example, let’s say you have a goal of setting up a website. This involves a number of steps, some of which must be done sequentially, some that can be done simultaneously. By adding those tasks to your list, you remain aware of where you are in the project and what needs to be done next, which keeps you on track toward your long-term goal while keeping specific tasks manageable.

3. It must have a defined time frame. I prefer weekly lists to trying to assign tasks to specific days. Others prefer daily lists, while others prefer to write lists for the month. Some even make lists for the year. Studies have actually shown that keeping a more flexible to-do list with a longer time frame (e.g., weekly or monthly rather than daily) can actually improve performance. Some people keep separate lists for tasks vs. projects. A monthly list might include “write travel article” and “organize photos,” while the weekly list includes “conduct interviews” and “obtain photos from travel bureau.” The key is identifying what you wish to achieve within a specific time frame.

4. It must be visible. My husband keeps his list on his computer. I keep mine on a pad of paper on my desk, where I can see it at a glance. If you can’t see your list, or never refer to it, it won’t help you.

5. It must be flexible. Your list is written on paper, not graven in stone. No matter how well you plan, something may come up that is more important or urgent than your list. When that happens, simply jot down the new priority, and don’t be surprised when older items must be postponed. This is one reason I prefer weekly rather than daily lists; if my goal is to complete Task X by the end of the week, having to postpone it by a day or two doesn’t necessarily affect my list as a whole.

It’s important to remember that a list is not a schedule. A list is simply that—a list of objectives within a particular time frame. Many of us feel stifled by schedules. A list tells you what you need to get done but leaves the management of your time up to you.

(Excerpt from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer)


Hope those tips help you be a more productive writer. I must admit, when my life is really crazy, I sometimes keep two to-do lists, and sometimes the same task is on each one--so I can feel really good crossing it off twice ;) 

Next week I'll be posting a tip about the most important part of writing a series, so I hope to see you then :)


  1. I think a to-do-list is great. It really helps with organizing my time and I seem to get things done when I have list.
    I like to keep on task with my reading by doing a chapter a day. Sometimes the chapters are only a few pages but at least I have accomplished that task and it motivates me to get more done.

    Dinh@Arlene's Book Club

    1. Hi Dinh,

      I like to-do lists too, especially when I'm finding it hard to stay committed to doing something.

      And hey, a chapter a day sounds good to me!

      Thanks for stopping by!


I love comments :)