Home » To-Do Lists vs. Action Plans

That’s it, you’ve decided to organize your life. While organization can seem simple as list-making and labeling, it’s easy to become disorganized in your own organization as to-do’s pile up and you lose track of your own systems. However, with the right tools, you can easily and effectively start getting organized.

To-do lists and action plans are both great tools for planning and organization, but you need to make sure you’re using and managing them effectively. To do so, you need to know the difference between them as well as the best scenarios to use them in.

The To-Do List

The daily to-do list is one of the simplest and easiest ways to organize your life. You write down a handful of actionable items that you want to complete during a given time period, and as you complete each task, you tick it off your checklist. In general, to-dos are a great way to lay out what you need to accomplish in a day or other given period of time.


The main benefit of the to-do list is its simplicity and versatility. A daily to-do can include a wide variety of tasks that range from major business projects to smaller tasks like doing laundry, enabling you to easily assess what you need to accomplish before the day is done. People also use to-dos to give a sense of accomplishment; ticking off a simple task can be rewarding and provide motivation for tackling a bigger project.

To-dos are also relatively easy and low-maintenance. As you drink your coffee or eat breakfast in the morning, you can create a simple to-do by jotting down a handful of things that you want to accomplish before evening. As long as you keep your to-dos short and simple, they can serve as useful reminders if you need to finish something in particular or deviate from your general routine.


The primary drawback of to-dos is their potential to become disorganized and overwhelming. Failing to organize your to-dos can hamper your productivity by diminishing your ability to prioritize important tasks. For example, if you have twelve uncategorized items written down, then you may end up trying to complete as many smaller tasks as possible in the name of ticking off items, but you’ll end up neglecting larger goals. Therefore, you should be sure to indicate which items are high priority and which can be put off.

Additionally, adding too many items to your to-do can easily overwhelm you. If you see a massive set of tasks, then you’ll lose motivation and ignore them altogether. Therefore, as a general rule, you should limit the number of items on your to-do to about ten at most. When using to-dos, you must make sure that you keep them short, simple, and organized in order to maximize their utility.

The Action Plan

An action plan is similar to a to-do list, but it focuses on steps that you need to take toward a specific project or goal.  You first write your goal as well as why you want to achieve it, and you then write a checklist of steps that you need to take to achieve it. For example, if one of your goals is to plan a party by a certain date, you would write the date of the party and its importance at the top of your plan and then write down steps like “invite 30 guests” or “book the venue” below.


Unlike to-dos, these plans zone in on a single, long-term project. This focus makes them ideal for long-term planning for a particular set of goals. By writing out each step, you can clearly picture what you need to accomplish by when in order to ensure that you continually make timely progress toward any given goal. Whether you’re hosting a business meeting or deep cleaning your house, this type of plan will help you divide tasks into smaller and manageable sub-tasks.

This plan is also useful when coordinating among various people. If you have a workgroup for a particular project, you can come up with a plan to tackle it, assign different tasks, and post deadlines on a shared calendar.


One of the main drawbacks of this plan is that creating one often leads to a false sense of accomplishment. Because making this type of plan requires time and thought, you may feel like you accomplished more than you really did. While making a plan is certainly important, it doesn’t constitute finishing the task, so keep that in mind when making this type of plan. One way to mitigate this sense of false accomplishment is to set aside specified time for organizational activities; for example, you could make and review organizational devices over your morning coffee as a way to awaken your brain in the morning.

This type of plan also can be difficult to use to plan daily tasks. If you’re only looking at one or two, then you can focus too heavily on a particular project and neglect other, smaller tasks, which can quickly add up and make things difficult for you. Therefore, when you use this type of plan, you should also devote one to keeping your home and health in good shape, and you should learn to not depend wholly on them.

Which One Should I Use?

Each type has unique benefits and drawbacks, so you should use your best judgment to determine what kind of checklist works best for the type of planning that you’re engaging in.

When to Use a To-Do

A to-do is most useful for daily scheduling because it can lay out all that you need to accomplish. Looking at multiple documents can quickly make your head spin, so synthesizing daily tasks in a to-do tells you the most pressing tasks that you need to accomplish by the time you go to bed. Keeping a short and simple to-do checklist will help you prioritize and focus on tasks that are urgent.

Using a master “brain dump” type to-do is also useful for keeping track of miscellaneous tasks that arise. Because these miscellaneous tasks are difficult to categorize, they would not fit into a specific plan. If your sister’s birthday is a month away, for example, you may want to note that you need to buy a gift whenever you have a moment to run to the mall. This task doesn’t normally build toward a larger goal, but it needs to be accomplished; therefore, you should keep and regularly check a master log of non-pressing, miscellaneous tasks, adding them to your daily to-do when you know you can take care of something.

When to Use an Action Plan

An action plan is most useful with long-term, more complicated goals. Adding all of the tasks related to a specific goal on a to-do can be overwhelming, but since this plan is geared toward a specified long-term deadline, related tasks can be listed without becoming daunting or overwhelming. You can also use them to gauge your overall progress towards a goal, allowing you to reassess your work pace and deadlines.

These are also useful when coordinating multiple moving parts. If you’re working solo, you may have tasks that require a response from an outside party. For example, if you’re trying to coordinate a party, you may be waiting on a quote from a venue or caterer. With this type of plan, you can see all steps and move onto another aspect of party planning, such as decorations, while you wait for others to do their parts. If you’re working with a group, then a team plan is necessary to see all steps of the process and assign tasks and roles. These are thus great tools to ensure that large and complicated tasks get completed on time.

Bringing the Two Together

Because they serve two distinct but related purposes, you should do your best to use both to-dos and action plans when organizing your schedule. Essentially, you should use an action plan to keep track of long-term tasks, to-do’s for daily scheduling, and a “master list” for miscellaneous tasks. Each day, you should create a to-do by first adding time-sensitive items (e.g. doctor’s appointment at 1pm) and then drawing in items from your holistic, long-term checklists as needed and relevant.

When using this type of system, be sure to keep organized and keep track of what you accomplish on your action plans and master checklist, and you can use technology to your advantage when keeping everything neat and tidy. Many apps, for example, allow users to drag in items from long-term checklists on their daily to-dos, and when you check off an item on your daily schedule, the app automatically checks it off in the main checklist. When combining these two important tools to keep yourself organized, you should use tools like organization apps to keep your lists straight.

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