Make a To-Do List each Morning

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the concept and utility of a To-Do list for stress management
  • Explore different methods for creating and managing To-Do lists
  • Identify the impacts of using a To-Do list on mental health and wellbeing

Over and over again, people show up on my therapy couch telling me they feel overwhelmed. As I listen, they launch into a long list of things they have to do in life. Nothing on the list is especially unusual, it’s just a very long list. And since I’m headquartered in Florida, a lot of it is medically related.

Over and over again, the simple To-Do List pulls these clients back from the brink. Why? When you have a lot to do, that’s a cognitive burden. Sometimes you do forget, and then life gets more complicated. Embarrassed, you go into crisis mode, apologize to people for your apparent moral laxity, and reschedule. Then you chide yourself for your failure to remember.

The Psychological Effects of a List

A To-Do List eliminates the fuss, the uncertainty of not knowing whether everything important has been done. Any item that makes the list, stays there until completed. Your job is to make the list and work the list. Simple. Once an item is on your list, then you can forget about it. Your list will remember for you. Anything important makes the list. Anything not important does not make the list. So relax. Everything you need to do written down.

When I introduce the To-Do List concept, clients reliably tell me how great it is not to have to worry so much anymore. What’s more, they feel awesome, powerful even, when crossing through items. These items are not just completed, they’re vanquished, an invading army that once infringed one’s peace of mind, now repelled. Clients build a sense of self-efficacy just by working their list. If you have free time, why just review the list and see what you can get done. It’s probably much more than you think.

Keep it Simple

So how do you make a good To-Do List? Starting simple at least means you start, and starting anything is the most precarious moment of any endeavor. Stress can be paralyzing. Use an app on your smartphone and the list is always with you. Search your app store for “To-Do List,” there are tons of options, some simple and some complex. If you’re using an iPhone, the Notes app comes with your phone and is extremely simple to use. Other apps allow you to set reminders, make lists within lists, and so on. Be careful, though, too much complexity puts a lot of uncertainty between you and this extremely effectively time management tool. There are even review articles online that compare apps for all major operating systems.

Or, if old school is more your speed, get a paper notebook. Write out your list. When you complete an item, cross it out and put a date beside it, along with any necessary reminders and notes. Now you have a permanent record of each item and the date it was completed. When the page gets too messy, copy the incomplete items over to a new page. Keep that process going. By archiving each notebook, you have a hardcopy of what’s been accomplished and when. You now have paper records you can consult as necessary.

To-Do Lists for Every Life Domain?

Another approach is to create to-do list for each domain of your life. You might have lists for school, home, marriage, kids, financial, and so on. If your life is especially complex, this is the way to go. If these domains can be written on a single sheet of notebook paper, all the better. The point is to be able to quickly survey everything you need to do by looking at a single sheet. You can amplify the utility of your To-Do List in two ways. First, go through each list and determine if some items on the list are prerequisites for other items on the list. If one of the items is “Read War and Peace for school” and another item is “Buy War and Peace,” that’s a dependency between list items. Draw a line connecting these items. Second, go through all items on the list and ask “What’s required to complete this item?” List each item’s prerequisites beside it. Now you have a simple plan for accomplishing each list item.

Seems obvious, right? Maybe so, but few people actually follow through. If you don’t believe the To-Do List simplifies your life, try doing it for two weeks. Start by rating your stress level on a scale from 0 to 100. At the beginning, you may be so stressed out that just making the list feels overwhelming. After all, you have to connect with the stress and anxiety of each unfinished action item just to make the list. If you continue to feel overwhelmed even after a few weeks, keep going. Even the most effective intervention needs time to work. In two or three weeks you should be feeling better and sleeping better. Now rate your stress again. By this time, you’ve worked your list long enough to know it works.

Whatever Works

By the way, the beauty of the To-Do List is how flexible the technique is. Adapt it to whatever works for you. If you love the feeling of control that detail brings, make a three-ring binder with color coded tabs, where each tab represents a domain of your life. Or just carry an index card in your wallet. Whatever works. There is no right or wrong way to construct a To-Do list.

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. Why are To-Do Lists beneficial for stress management?

  • A. They help keep track of medical appointments
  • B. They eliminate the uncertainty of not knowing whether everything important has been done
  • C. They serve as a reminder to take medications
  • D. They help plan vacations

2. How do clients feel after using a To-Do List?

  • A. They feel less worried and more powerful
  • B. They feel frustrated and stressed
  • C. They feel tired and overworked
  • D. They feel lost and confused

3. What advice is given for starting to use a To-Do List app?

  • A. Start with something simple
  • B. Choose the most complex app
  • C. Ignore apps and use a paper notebook
  • D. Only use an app if you are comfortable with technology

4. What is one way to create a To-Do List if your life is complex?

  • A. Write the list on a piece of wood
  • B. Create a list for each domain of your life
  • C. Write all the tasks on a wall
  • D. Do not write anything down, keep everything in your mind

5. What should you do if you continue to feel overwhelmed even after using the To-Do List for a few weeks?

  • A. Stop using the To-Do List
  • B. Continue using it, because it takes time for interventions to work
  • C. Throw away the list and start over
  • D. Get rid of all tasks on the list


1. B – They eliminate the uncertainty of not knowing whether everything important has been done

2. A – They feel less worried and more powerful

3. A – Start with something simple

4. B – Create a list for each domain of your life

5. B – Continue using it because the body lags the mind