I don’t care what kind of job you do, a to-do list can be your best friend. Here’s how I make mine.

The first thing I do every morning when I get to work is write my to-do list. It took me some time to develop my system; I’ve tried a variety of methods, including keeping it online, but because of the way my memory works, writing it fresh is what works best for me. I sit down with my coffee and my pens — yes, plural — and remind myself of what my priorities are for the day. (If you prefer to manage your list with apps and online tools, I cannot recommend Wunderlist enough.)

Finding a pad you love is key: I use a Miquelrius A4 grid-line spiral notebook in pink (it’s also available in blue and black). The size is perfect for me, and the color makes it easy to find (although I do try always to keep it on top of whatever stack of papers I’ve got floating around). You should use whatever pad you like best — you’re more likely to keep it going if you don’t hate it. Experiment with different styles and sizes until you find the fit for you. Keep in mind that this notepad should only be for your to-do lists. Day-to-day notes should go in a totally separate place.

To begin, write today’s day and date at the top. Just like you did in high school. that way, when you have questions about when a task was assigned or completed or whatever, you have the information to hand.

If you have a large number of recurring tasks (more than, say, five), divide the rest of the page in half. The line can be imaginary or real, depending on what works best for you. The right side of the page is then reserved for any daily/weekly/monthly recurring tasks — things that won’t ever drop from your list unless they’re reassigned to a colleague. You should check these off as you do them, even so.

The left side of the page is for one-off tasks. Things like “type X document”, or “update this page on the website”. Each task should go on its own line. Occasionally, a task will need to be broken into steps.

Steps-as-tasks are great for complicated projects (tracking every aspect without writing it out can get scary quickly) and for long-term projects (you will then have a sense of having accomplished things for that task, even if you don’t get to finish the project for several days or weeks. When you break it down, the overall project should go on a flush-left bulleted line. Each step will then go on its own line, but indented, like this:

  • Create July report
    • Pull Twitter Data
    • Pull Facebook Data
    • Pull Website Stats
    • Analyze data

You should also make sure to add any notes about why a project may be pending “Update text on About Us Page (pending copy from Communications Director)” and whether it’s due on a specific date. If there are tasks that are high-priority for that day, put an asterisk at the left of the item.

You likely already know to check tasks off as you complete them, but I go one step farther: when a task is in progress, I draw a circle around the bullet. This helps me to remember what tasks I’m still working on when I am drafting my list the next day. I also color code: one for the list itself, one for in-progress notations, and a third for check marks. I’ve found this makes it easier to see where I’m at with things at a glance. At the end, your list will look something like this:

with recurring tasks

Without recurring

Add tasks to your list as soon as you receive them throughout the day. That way you’ll have a sense of where you stand, and whether you need to reassess your priorities for the day.

Ultimately, all of this is YMMV. I started a decade and a half ago with a different system and I’ve adjusted it multiple times over the years. Sometimes, tweaking a system is easier than trying to create your own from scratch.

PS: I also recommend using a service like iDoneThis. It allows you to track your accomplishments each day, and can provide reports based on periods of time or tags. It’s great to see how much you’ve accomplished, and it’s useful should your boss ask for a rundown of your accomplished tasks. Always add meetings you’ve attended to your accomplishments — if you spent time creating plans or noodling something out, then you were doing something!