In the past I have discussed some of the tools I use to manage my task lists but I'm never addressed the topic as it relates to workflow or functionality. Some people love to-do lists and others absolutely hate them. They seem to work for some people and not for others. I believe they don't work for some people because their personalities are just not organized that way. However, for the majority of people who feel that to-do lists just don't work for them I suspect the problem is that nobody ever taught them how to use a to-do list properly.
The Two Secrets of To-Do List Productivity
It Will Never Be Empty
Your to-do list will never be empty. Your goal is not to complete everything on the list. This first secret is why task lists fail many people. You have to accept that it is not meant to be done. A to-do list is a moving, live, dynamic list of things you need to do. Naturally you will always be adding things and completing things. To think it might one day be done is to believe that you will one day have nothing at all to do. It is impossible.
A to-do list is meant to be your guide in productivity. It is meant to reduce stress and anxiety by ensuring you always know what needs to be done. To believe that it is a mission to be completed or a dragon to slay is to live in constant anxiety and stress. This is the essence of how to-do lists can backfire. Your list is your partner not your enemy.
Everything MUST Go On the List
A lot of the stress and anxiety that most people feel comes from the feeling that there is something they need to do and they can't remember what it is. The to-do list functions to remove that stress only when it contains EVERYTHING that you need to do. Think of your list as a mind-dump outlet. Anytime you think of anything you need to do put it on the list. Regardless of how simple or mundane you may think the task may be (polish my shoes or buy more light bulbs) it must be added to the list if you cannot complete the task in the moment it comes to your mind.
This has the added benefit of creating a sense of accomplishment because you find yourself checking off a lot of tasks due to their simplicity.