There is a rush of satisfaction that I feel each time I use my chunky, black Crayola marker to cross something off my daily list.

All right, so maybe the marker actually belongs to my kids, but I still love that quick sense of satisfaction.

I know I’m not the only one who likes the feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing things off their list. Maybe you are even the type of person who puts something on your to-do list just so you can cross it off.

That used to be me — placing things on my list I knew I could easily get done, or even jotting down things I had already done, just so I could cross them off — but not anymore. I’ve changed my ways.

Over the years I’ve realized the value of the to-do list doesn’t come from crossing things off the list; its value comes from what was on the list in the first place. If you really want a more productive use of your time and a to-do list that works for you, you need to make a few changes.

To-do lists were a topic of discussion during a presentation I was teaching on time-management. In a candid moment, a sweet lady right in front of me reached into her purse and pulled out her to-do list. I use the term “list” loosely. She held in her hand for all of us to see a navy blue, 5×7 spiral notebook filled line after line, page after page with task items. She didn’t have a to-do list; she had a to-do manual.

We smiled and laughed but in all seriousness I asked her, “How does that list make you feel?”

You might think her answer would be “productive,” “efficient” or “organized.” But if you’ve ever been one to carry around a notebook like this, you know how she really answered.

“It makes me feel overwhelmed. No matter how much I do, there is always more. I can’t get it all done.”

This woman felt like she was not good enough because she could not be everything to everyone or accomplish all the things she needed to do. I was so glad I could teach this new friend of mine, and the rest of the class, the right way to approach a to-do list.

value of a to-do list quote

Chunk it

A to-do manual is broad and all-encompassing. You’ve got to narrow it down.

When my kids first learn to read, we teach them how to take a large, compound word and “chunk it” down into words they already know. Then they realize they really can read the big word easily. The same can apply to your crazy long to-do list. Let’s chunk it. You can even still use that notebook, we are just going to use the pages differently.

First, begin by identifying each of the roles you play. A role is a different “hat” you wear — like parent, home-manager, employee, etc. Each of these roles will be a different chunk of your list.

Next, focus only on one role at a time and brainstorm all the things you need to do in that role for the next week, or even the next month. Your home manager brainstorm might include things like: pay bills, mop, pick up shirts from dry cleaners, or grocery shopping. While your parent list might look like date night with your daughter, register the kids for softball, take the kids to the library or buy plane tickets for the family vacation.

Choose it

Now looking at each list, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Which things on each of these lists are most urgent or carry a deadline? Circle them.
  2. Which things on each of these lists are actually most important to you? Star them.

Playing catch in the yard with your son might be the most important thing to you in your heart, but it will be the first thing to not happen from your list because it’s an evergreen activity and can happen at anytime. Therefore, it usually never happens.

Finally, look at your role list items that are circled or starred and decide which six things are most important for you to do tomorrow? Write those down on a separate sheet of paper or plug them into your favorite task app on your phone. Those six important things are now your new to-do list. When they are finished, pick six more for the next day.

The advantages to this six-most-important list approach begin with increased productivity in your day but will also help you feel more organized and more confident in your ability to get things done. Can you imagine how great it will feel when you actually accomplish all six things on your list in a single day?

Plus, you can still feel the rush of crossing each task off your list with a big chunky marker — and, boy, does that feel good.

This article originally published as Nicole’s column on KSL.com