To-do lists in project management

A to-do list contains all the tasks that need to be done and can be ticked off accordingly. It is suitable for every person involved in a project, as it can be customised and provides more clarity. 

There are different methods of keeping a list, from the simple, to the extended, to the complex method. The simplest method includes the due date and the responsibility in addition to the tasks. In the extended list, the time required to complete the task is added. Since this is an estimate, a buffer should always be planned. In the complex variant, the tasks are subdivided into sub-areas and the resources and stakeholders required for them are listed. The last variant can be used especially by project managers. 

But what are the advantages and disadvantages of to-do lists and what other variants are there?
A woman writes something in a notebook.

What is useful about to-do lists?

To-do lists provide a clear overview of the entire project so that no step is forgotten, the unfinished items are not floating around in the back of your mind, and you don't have to constantly think about what still needs to be done. This also makes for better time management, as everyone can clearly see what still needs to be done, which tasks need to be completed and individual tasks can also be delegated. As soon as a task has been dealt with, the next task is tackled.
By ticking off the individual steps, you can track the status and see exactly what the progress is. This can boost your confidence and motivate you to achieve your goal. The goal can be one big main goal, or it can be several smaller goals that can be achieved more quickly on the way to the main goal. The advantage of to-do lists is that you can decide for yourself how detailed they should be. Do you prefer many small intermediate goals or fewer but large individual goals? How you build your to-do list is entirely up to you.

In which cases are to-do lists not useful?

But as good as the advantages sound, there is, as always, a downside. 
If you already have very little time for a project, writing a to-do list is an additional factor that costs time. The resulting time pressure can lead to unconscious or even conscious stress. This usually leads to a negative performance. If it lasts too long, it can have further negative consequences. So as soon as you notice that keeping the list only puts you under pressure, then it is better not to keep a to-do list.
In addition, you may also set yourself unrealistic goals. This is mainly because you have too high expectations of yourself. When you look at your list, you see all the unfinished tasks and are demotivated - but in doing so, you overlook everything that you have already achieved and checked off.

Digital or rather analogue?

If the advantages of a to-do list outweigh the disadvantages, then you should now ask yourself what the optimal to-do list looks like.

First you need to decide whether an analogue or a digital list is better suited to your needs. If the list does not need to be accessible to everyone, you can structure the tasks analogue, e.g., in a notebook. The disadvantage of this, however, would be that you cannot change the priorities easily. This means that you cannot simply take the list item and move it to another place, as in the digital world. However, this would save you a lot of time, after all, you don't have to write the item down again or possibly rewrite the whole list.
Another analogue alternative to the notebook is the whiteboard, to which the whole team has access, and which can be used with sticky notes or similar. The individual items on the to-do list can easily be moved around with the help of the sticky notes if priorities change. With this variant, you should definitely make sure that the whiteboard is freely accessible to all employees. However, if you want to avoid paper chaos, it is a good idea to keep a to-do list digitally. There are various apps or even Outlook for this, to which every employee has access. 

Ultimately, you have to assess for yourself whether digital or analogue is best for your project or your company in general. Is your company a start-up that is primarily concerned with the topic of digitalisation? Then you should also set a good example and keep the list digital. It is accessible to every employee and is also a great advantage if employees work in home office or hybrid. However, if the points mentioned are not an issue in your company, you can also choose the analogue form. A clear advantage would be that you can remember and visualise the handwritten note more easily. 
However, the answer to the question whether analogue or digital is usually not clear, as both variants have their advantages and disadvantages. To balance out the disadvantages, it would make most sense to use both forms in order to remain as flexible as possible, but this would entail an increased expenditure of time.

5 tips for the optimal use

Even though a to-do list can be helpful and is usually self-explanatory, mistakes can creep in. To avoid this, we give you 5 tips.

1. Tasks should always be planned with an estimated time. This way, not too many tasks are spread over one day and unnecessary stress is avoided. A digital tool is particularly helpful, as the time can be adjusted for everyone to see if it does take longer. Or maybe less time is needed than expected. This should also be documented so that experience can be gathered for future planning. 
Having enough time also provides flexibility and counteracts possible procrastination. This leads us to the next point.

2. It is advisable to start with the most difficult and unpleasant task, because this is the one you always like to put off. But if you think: The worst is now done, your motivation is correspondingly high. It also helps you not to put off tasks and avoid procrastination.

3. Large tasks can cause you to lose track of the individual steps of a project. Therefore, you should divide these large tasks into smaller steps. You can do this digitally by introducing additional checklists for a specific task. This also means that you don't have to think about whether you might have forgotten a step, which leads to higher productivity in the team.
However, you should be careful not to write down too many small tasks. This could otherwise lead to the list becoming confusing. If the tasks can be done in just a few minutes, they should not be written down. 

4. When choosing tools for a digital list, think about what is needed. Sometimes simple to-do list apps are sufficient, but sometimes software is needed in which to-do lists can be kept and projects can be created from one point of the list. With more complex software, individual tasks can also be digitised so that items such as manually writing an email or reminding someone of an appointment are no longer necessary. 

5. It is also important to create the list at the right time. Ideally, the list should be written at the end of the working day. By checking how much was done or ticked off that working day, you can plan exactly what needs to be done the next day. And since the day is still fresh in your mind, you don't run the risk of forgetting something.

2 options for practitioners

There are different ways to keep a task list. In general, as mentioned above, the comprehensiveness can be adjusted accordingly. However, there are also different concepts of a list, such as the "one minute list", or the "open items list".

The general to-do list varies depending on its purpose and may include the following:
 
  • Unique identification of the task with sequential number, 
  • Short description with possible reference to a more detailed document so that everyone can follow everything, 
  • Duration for the tasks, 
  • Persons responsible, 
  • Due date; if necessary, reasons why the deadline cannot be met, 
  • Possible prioritisation, 
  • Status of processing: "to do", "wip", "done" or also "outdated", if necessary, with a Kanban board,
  • Documentation of the results.

The "One Minute To-Do List" consists of three columns in which all tasks are listed according to their priority. The method was originally developed by the American time management expert Michael Linenberger.
The first step is to order the tasks according to their urgency. One way would be to categorise them into:
  
  • Critical Now, contains the most urgent tasks with the highest priority, 
  • Opportunity Now, contains tasks that should be done in the next 7-10 days, 
  • Over the Horizon, contains tasks that are not time-critical or basic ideas with a low priority. 
In the second step, you should make sure that you do not work on too many tasks in parallel, otherwise you can get overwhelmed. Therefore, it is important to place the individual tasks in the right column. There should be no more than five tasks in Critical Now, no more than 20 in Opportunity Now and an unlimited number in Over the Horizon. 
It is important that you keep checking the individual columns. To do this, you should set fixed dates for updating the columns. It is advisable to check the Critical Now column several times a day and cross off the completed tasks. The Opportunity Now column should be checked at least once a day. This way you can check which tasks are moved to the first column and which can wait. The last column should be checked at least once a week. 
However, since the Over the Horizon column can contain a lot of tasks and is also only checked once a week, it can happen that a large amount accumulates. Therefore, this column should also be sorted out from time to time. Tasks that are obsolete should be removed. Sometimes it helps to simply part with certain ideas.
Since most projects are always changing, some ideas may also become obsolete. A "defer-to-review" process can also be introduced for this section. Certain tasks are put on extra lists and at certain dates the individual lists are reviewed. If the tasks are still current, they can be moved to another column; if not, the tasks can be deleted. 
The advantages of the "One Minute To-Do List" are that they keep a good overview, as it consists of only three columns, the prioritisation is clear, parallel tasks are limited and the tasks are checked again and again. However, you must be aware that it is only sorted by urgency. So, if you actually have strategically important tasks, they can get lost and you have to resort to another option.
 
Another option for project documentation is the "Open Points List" (OPL). It documents all project events and describes open points that lead to the success of the project. This means that you need to consider which work packages have not yet been completed and which points need to be included in the OPL. At the same time, logging makes it possible to track who did what and when. Therefore, responsibilities, tasks and deadlines are regulated. 
In addition to the contents of a conventional to-do list, which we have already presented to you above, further elements can be added:
The date the task was added to the list should be mentioned in the OPL to keep track of how long the item has been on the list. In addition, any relevant information gained during the project should be listed, as well as problems that have arisen during the project and need resolution. Ideally, problems are accompanied by a problem report. Questions that need to be answered during the project and documentation of the results should also be noted in the OPL. Similarly, it is useful to document ideas that have arisen during the project and could potentially be implemented. A column for other notes and comments can also be helpful.
The advantage of this list is that it can be easily kept during a meeting so that everyone can follow the creation of this list, avoiding extra work as the meeting does not need to be followed up.

With to-do lists to project success

The clear advantage of a to-do list is that its structure is very simple and someone without prior knowledge can easily follow it. So, if you can use to-do lists to keep track of your entire project, from planning, monitoring and controlling to completion, then by all means do so. If you also always make sure to check the lists, they can be very clear and lead to success. Especially if a to-do list is kept for each work package. This way you can always see the progress of the project and the work takes place gradually and reliably.

To-do lists - The IAPM Logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project Management, Term, Tips, To-Do List

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