Master List vs. To-do List

Master List vs. to-do list, and why you need both

Katie executive function, goal setting, good habits, organization, productivity

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

master list vs to-do list

I’m a huge fan of lists. I’m a fan not only for my own personal geekish reasons but also for reasons based on cognitive science. (In case you didn’t hear, our brains can not store endless amounts of information.)

I’ve written about lists many times, in a variety of contexts: here are the top 10 lists students should have, here are tips for keeping track of homework, here’s how to use a list as an inbox (scroll to #2), and here’s how to use lists to reverse engineer your goals.

This post is all about Master Lists vs. to-do lists. You are likely familiar with and probably already use a basic to-do list, but here I’m teaching you about a secret weapon called the Master List.

Let’s start with some simple definitions:

  1. To-do list: a list of daily or weekly tasks that you need to complete by a certain time in the very near future. 
  2. Master List: a catch-all list for longer-term projects and ideas that don’t carry as much urgency as to-do list items.

I argue that we need both types of lists to operate fully. Master Lists and to-do lists have different functions, both of which are critical for students and working professionals. 

Differences between Master Lists and to-do lists:

Master List

  • Contains mostly non-urgent tasks and projects
  • Contains mostly should do and want to do items
  • Can be one catch-all list or divided by context (work, school, home, etc.)
  • Should be reviewed periodically (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly)
  • Might contain tasks you never get to or that you lose interest in
  • Can include medium-term or long-term goals
  • Can contain projects of all sizes, from simple tasks to multi-step goals
  • Items from the Master List are eventually pulled over to the to-do list
  • Should be stored in an accessible location, but not necessarily constantly visible (consider using the Notes app on a phone, or my Goal-Setting Bundles all include 4 Master List templates for this exact purpose)
  • Items on this list should realistically be completed within 12-18 months

To-do list

  • Contains items that are urgent or time-sensitive
  • Are specific to a particular day or week, and are regularly rewritten
  • Can include individual steps to larger goals
  • Can include tasks you pull from your Master List
  • Should be very accessible and visible during the day
  • Should be reviewed multiple times per day
  • If written daily, should include only tasks that you can realistically complete in a day

Examples of a Master Lists

If you’re new to the idea of a Master List, you might find some examples helpful. Below, I include some basic ideas of what you might put on a Master List in various contexts. Again, you don’t have to divide your list by context (I personally just use one Master List for everything), but that’s just how I’m formatting my examples.

Master List for school:

  • Clean out digital files and organize folders
  • Start researching colleges
  • Go through old school papers and notebooks

Master List for work:

  • Go 100% digital by scanning all papers in the file cabinet
  • Research going back for a Master’s Degree
  • Update resumé

Master List for personal life:

  • Organize my digital photos
  • Paint the bedroom
  • Clean out garage

Master Lists are not only excellent productivity tools, but they help us feel less overwhelmed by the anxiety-producing feeling of “forgetting” something. They are a simple way to store our non-urgent tasks, goals and projects so that our brain can focus on the more urgent tasks on our to-do list.

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