A Mom’s Guide to Making Brilliant To-do Lists and Getting Stuff Done


In our modern world, we’re busier than ever — especially when raising children and running a household. We’re rushing from one activity to another, and we struggle to find the time to get everything done that we plan to do. Important tasks fall through the cracks leading to embarrassment and other consequences, such as an unpleasant phone call from a teacher. Sound familiar?

I fully relate to how crazy life can be for parents. I have the unique and fortunate experience of working outside of the home and being a stay-at-home mom. For five years, I focused on parenting — juggling school-related activities, volunteer work, household chores, and equestrian hobbies. Outside of those five years, I’ve worked in the technology industry on teams using cutting-edge project management and software development techniques.

Over the years, I’ve gained invaluable experience in several project management methodologies that you can easily apply to running a household. I’m never a purist – I choose techniques from various methodologies to develop my own time management style.

Specifically, I learned techniques for managing my to-dos in smarter ways, which I’m excited to share to help parents who might be struggling with managing their busy lives and schedules.

The Basics: Why Keep a To-do List?

Studies show that most people can only remember 3 to 9 items at a time. If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing you have more than 9 items to do. If not, I’m jealous. Trying to keep all those items in your head consumes energy that you can put to better use.

David Allen, the founder of the Getting Things Done® (GTD) method for managing life and business suggests that you capture anything and everything that has your attention. Why? Because your head is not a calendar, whiteboard, computer, or notebook — it just can’t hold all of this information efficiently. Capturing everything you need to do will free your mind of trying to remember to pick up snacks for baseball practice or preparing for a PTA meeting.

Studies also show that keeping a to-do list can lead to high self-esteem. Crossing off your to-dos gives you a sense of accomplishment and gratification. If you don’t complete everything, you’re still seeing progress. My mantra is — “progress, not perfection.”

The Basics: What’s a To-do?

When you first make to-do lists, you might blend goals, projects, tasks, and events/appointments — consider they’re all different, which I explain below.

Goals – Big things that you want to accomplish, such as “Have an efficient cooking environment before the holidays“ or “Lose 10 pounds in 5 weeks.”

Projects – Large undertakings that you can break down into tasks, such as “Organized Kitchen” or “Triathlon Training.”

Tasks/To-dos – Smaller items that help you to achieve goals and/or complete projects, such as “Remove expired food from refrigerator” or “Run three miles.” In this post, I’m using the terms “to-dos” and “tasks” interchangeably.

Events/Appointments – Things you must perform at a designated time and/or place, such as a parent-teacher conference. Events can result from goals, projects, or tasks — such as an appointment with a professional organizer.

When making to-do lists, focus on tasks — not projects, goals, and events. Ensure they’re actionable things that you can accomplish in a session. Don’t be afraid to break tasks up into smaller tasks. With practice, you’ll understand how large or small your tasks should be.

You Have a Colossal To-do List. What Now?

You’ve captured actionable things that you can accomplish in a session, and now you have a monster to-do list and you’re more stressed than ever. This is when you tame the beast by putting prioritization into play.

Consider that your to-do list is essentially a list of requirements and think of your family as a high-performing team who prioritizes and delivers various things — homework, shopping, meals, balanced budgets, etc.

In business, the Product Manager of a team typically prioritizes requirements into scales, such as “Critical,” “Important,” and “Desirable.” For example, in the case of a household, “Schedule Carpool” and “Feed the Dog” might fall into “Critical,” while “Vacuum the Office” might fall into “Important.” Also, consider using a “To-Don’t” list for anything you’ve decided is just not important or do-able.

Instead, you might choose to prioritize using the Covey Quadrant, which is described in depth in the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey. The quadrant identifies four categories for prioritization, Quadrant 1 (Important and Urgent), Quadrant 2 (Important and Not Urgent), Quadrant 3 (Not Important and Urgent), and Quadrant 4 (Not Important and Not Urgent).

Choose a tool for categorizing your to-dos — paper, whiteboard, mobile app, or other software. Divide your to-dos into the above categories or sections of your quadrant.

Help! What Do You Do Next?

Figuring out the jobs that you work on each day or week is unique to you. It hinges on the type of work you do, your family’s priorities, your available time, and special needs that your family might have. When you choose your family’s to-dos, evaluate the time and resources you have available, and the priority of the tasks.

For me, my work and life is very deadline driven. When I don’t have a hard deadline, I establish one for myself, and this method prompts me to get things done. I schedule hard commitments and deadlines on my calendar and fit the other items into the gaps in-between.

I suggest that you trust your intuition. Be fearless about breaking your rules if things aren’t working for you and your family.

How Can Your Family Help?

Sharing is caring. Getting the family to share household priorities can have a profound effect on success. To accomplish this, I look to Agile software development.

Agile software development is one of the most popular methods for creating software in an iterative and incremental way. It was developed by a group of software developers about a decade ago. And it’s become one of the most popular methods for creating software in an iterative and incremental way. Applying this methodology to family life has become a popular trend.

One of the principles of agile is a “self-organizing” team. In a self-organizing team, a group works together to accomplish a goal — and they choose their tasks — instead of waiting to take orders from “the boss.” Yeah, that’s right. You have to relinquish some of your control.

In Agile, the team attends a planning meeting at regular intervals. For families, I recommend the same technique. At this meeting, the family reviews the tasks in the “backlog” (the items you captured and collected) and decides what to do in the next “sprint,” which is a period of time determined by the team. This technique empowers the family to agree on the goals and tasks, and it encourages the family to participate.

Another method to adopt from Agile is the “daily standup.” This is a short session where each family member communicates 1) What I accomplished yesterday, 2) What I will do today, and 3) Is anything blocking me from getting stuff done. A quick, casual “daily standup” gets the family on track and identifies any issues, such as unfinished homework.

What’s the Right Tool for the Job?

For families with children who are old enough to use computers, tablets, and smartphones, I suggest finding technology, such as a personal organization application, that works for your family.

Encourage family members to add commitments, such as travel plans, homework that’s due, carpools, soccer practices, piano lessons, etc. to the calendar so the entire family understands when and where these items are taking place. Find a personal information organizer that enables you to manage the family calendar and task lists in one place. Take advantage of audible and visible notifications to make sure you never miss an important meeting, task, or appointment.

With a mobile personal organizer, your family has access to a shared calendar and task lists at any place or time. For example, when you’re at baseball practice and you’re assigned snack duty; you can instantly add this commitment to your calendar and the items to buy to your shopping list. This way, there’s no excuse for showing up empty handed.

Your Turn

Please comment and share your ideas for organizing your families’ crazy schedules and commitments. Thanks!

1 reply

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