In my work supporting executive function, I don’t insist that my students use a planner. As many parents and educators know, students tend to resist using planners, and I’ve decided it’s not worth trying to change their minds. Instead, I encourage my students to use to-do lists.
But to-do lists come with their own set of pitfalls, so students need to know how to write better to-do lists. Luckily, this is something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, developing for my own use, and teaching to my habit coaching clients.
Please keep in mind that planners and to-do lists are not mutually exclusive. The following strategies can be used instead of a planner or in conjunction with a planner. They can also be used in conjunction with a digital calendar, phone reminders, sticky notes, and other tools that get you to stop relying on memory.
Special Paper, Special Place
The first pitfall is writing your to-do list on a regular piece of paper and just leaving it in your binder or on your desk as you would any other random paper. The problem here is that the paper doesn’t stand out. It’s easily ignored and easily lost.
The solution is to create a designated space at your home workspace where the to-do list lives and use a special type of paper that will stand out.
I really like these colored, sticky papers.
They’re sticky like post-it notes, so they don’t get accidentally shuffled in amongst other papers. They’re bigger than a sticky note but smaller than regular paper, which is usually about the right size for a to-do list. And the color makes them stand out.
To-Do List Categories for Students
The next thing your to-do list needs is categories. An unsorted list of tasks feels more overwhelming than an organized list that has sub-headings and blank spaces.
At the very least, each class should be its own category. And if you really want to geek out, you can create sub-categories within each class: homework, studying, knowledge gaps to address.
Planners often have categories for each class built in, but they usually don’t have categories for non-school things. You can add those categories to your planner, if there’s space for that, or you can ditch the planner and create your own system.
Using Checkboxes to Study More Often
The next strategy for writing better to-do lists as a student is to use checkboxes. To-do list checkboxes are extremely helpful because many of the tasks you have as a student aren’t one-and-done items like short homework assignments.
Studying for a big test, working on a project, and writing an essay are things that require multiple engagements. So after you write these items on your to-do list, put a few checkboxes next to them. Then, when you put in a session of effort toward one of these tasks, put a check in the box.
Checkboxes also work well for tasks like studying vocabulary with flashcards, SAT prep, AP exam review, and patching holes in your math knowledge. You can put checkboxes next to self-care items on your to-do list: going for a walk, doing pushups, reading for fun, taking a screentime break, etc. They’re also a good fit for major chores, such as dusting the house or cleaning the garage.
For large tasks, checkboxes are a reminder that you don’t have to complete the whole thing all at once to make meaningful progress. For studying, checkboxes are a reminder that it’s better to engage in spaced repetition than last-minute cramming. And putting checks in boxes is surprisingly motivating. It’s a way to celebrate your progress and reinforce your sense of self-efficacy.
Beyond One List
I’ve also found that my to-do list items need to be sorted into multiple lists based on how soon they need to be done. Rather than putting everything into one big list, I have layers of lists: today, this week, soon, eventually, and maybe.
That’s overkill for most students, so my recommendation is to maintain two lists: one for today and one for this week. The daily list is short and gets written every day after school. The weekly list is longer and gets written every Sunday. The daily list tells you what the priorities are for today, helping you focus. The weekly list is where categories and checkboxes are most helpful.
Leading By Example
Parents can model this with their own to-do lists. In fact, before suggesting this system to your child, practice it on your own for a few weeks. That way, you’ll have something to show them when you discuss it, and you’ll be able to talk honestly about the benefits you’ve been experiencing.
If you’d like personalized guidance on setting up a system that uses these strategies and fits your unique situation, I’d be happy to help. You can reach me by email: email@example.com.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.