If you’re a somewhat organised person, you have probably had more than one to-do list. How many of them have you abandoned, forgotten or simply gave up on? To most of us the answer is either “most of them” or “all of them”.

You may even have tried different list tools in the hoping to find one that actually works. I certainly have. And although there are many reasons why this or that tool or list doesn’t work, one thing I have learned is that, in the end it’s not so much about the tool. It’s about how you use it.

In this article, I’ll be focusing on one core aspect of what makes or breaks a to-do list – regardless of your tool of choice. It’s about how you phrase your to-dos.

To-do lists are not capturing devices

We often throw things into our to-do list when we’re in a rush. Naturally, we don’t always take time to phrase every item in the most accurate manner.

Let’s say you’re in a store queue and all of a sudden you see something that reminds you that the lamp in your garden shed needs a new light bulb. You also recall someone telling you that those lamps are of a particular kind and something else about the potential consequences of using the wrong one. You’re unsure which ones you should buy and where, so you resolve to seek an electrician’s advice.

You recall that your friend Jake said he knows a good electrician, so you decide you should call Jake about that. You also realise it’s about time you invite Jake and his wife over for dinner, although you’d need to coordinate that with your spouse first. By that time it’s almost your turn in the store queue, so you open your to-do list app and add an item to the list that says “Jake”.

So here’s the problem. When you open your to-to list one week later and see the item “Jake”, how likely are you to recreate the exact same line of thought you had when you put it there?

What you have here is a whole range of actions that need to be taken for different purposes. Some leading to another, and some not. You need to talk to your spouse, decide on possible dinner plans, call Jake, invite him and his wife to dinner, ask him about that electrician, call the electrician, maybe even book an inspection, order that bulb, retrieve the parcel when it arrives, install the bulb, dispose of the old one, and then plan and prepare that dinner.

Phrasing that kills execution

So when you squeeze all of that into a single to-do list item you name “Jake”, what outcome do you expect to have that box ticked?

Can you tick it when you’ve called Jake? Well, your garden shed lamp would still be missing a bulb, so no. Ideally, you should have had a separate to-do item for each of the actions listed above.

But most importantly: you should phrase your to-do list items in a way that makes the desired outcome clear.

If your to-do list consists of items like “Jake”, “Mom”, “Car”, “Annual report” and the like, then it’s not a functional to-do list. At best, it’s a collection of reminders, the sole purpose of which is to trigger memories that will hopefully lead you to a desired result.

Such lists are no better than a bunch of post-it notes on your computer screen.

Because they aren’t really actionable, what usually happens is that lists like this get overpopulated with items like “Jake”. Such items are rarely ever ticked off the list. To a great extent this is because they are so broad that there’s usually always something left to do about them. They also tend to stick around because they simply are so ambiguous that we often find it hard to know how to approach them. So we leave them for later and go for the more straightforward things first.

Sooner of later a list like this becomes so overpopulated by half-done and half-understood items that you simply stop noticing them. Eventually the list will become obsolete and you’ll feel you need a new list.

The end state is what matters

To avoid this, here’s what I recommend you to do. When adding something to your to-do list, ask yourself:

“What must the state of affairs be for me to be able to tick this box?”

It’s crucial that you have the end state in mind when phrasing the task. The “to-do” term suggests a wording format based on the infinitive verb tense (“Call Jake”, “Wash car”, “Write report”). That does work quite fine with simple and binary tasks, like “Buy milk”. But with anything more complex infinitives can get you in trouble.

I therefore strongly advise using past participle adjectives (done, completed, finished) or present perfect tense verbs (have completed, have sent, have interviewed) when phrasing your to-do items. Unlike the infinitive verb form suggested by the “to-do” term (call, send, write), these forms amplify the point of completeness.

Psychologically, this makes a huge difference in the way your mind perceives the task. Limiting yourself to only using these forms will make you more inclined to phrase your tasks in a way that best indicates the state of completion.

Consider this example example:

You have a report to prepare and you phrase this task using the infinitive “to-do” form. You ask yourself “What should I do to be able to tick this box?” and end up with a to-do item that says “Write the X report”.

What’s wrong with that? It does tell you to write the report. But suppose that you got to the point where your report is virtually ready. The writing part is complete. You just need to pimp up the layout a bit, add some graphics and save it in an applicable file format before you can send it out.

Could you say that you have written the report? You certainly can. In a moment of weakness and exhaustion you may be tempted to tick that “Write the X report” box, thinking that you’ll fix the final brushes at a later stage. And then you forget all about it, because it’s not on your list anymore.

Had you instead asked yourself “What must the state of affairs be for me to be able to tick this box?”, you would likely end up with a to-do item like “Report X completed” or “Report X ready to be sent out”. Both are a lot more realistic and accurate descriptions of the state of “Done”. You would less likely tick that box too early. You would also feel a lot more motivated to focus on finishing the report, since your task is all about the result.

It’s a simple rule of thumb to always phrase your to-dos with the end state in mind, but it can do real miracles. Especially combined with other task habits, which I’ll be elaborating on in my future articles.