So… What Exactly Is A Top-5 List?

posted by Andrea | 04/3/2015

what is a top 5 list

Almost exactly 4 years ago, I wrote a post about the “Top-5 Lists” that I make on a very regular basis (read that oldie-but-goodie post here!)

It certainly isn’t the best post I’ve ever written, and it didn’t get that many comments or questions at the time. However, in the 4 years since I published that post, I have gotten SO many emails, comments, and questions about how exactly I handle my Top-5 List.

I have to chuckle a little — because almost every time I get questions, they are from a self-proclaimed perfectionist that absolutely MUST figure out every single detail of how my list works so they can duplicate the process exactly.

The only problem is, I have very little perfectionistic tendencies so I rarely ever do anything 100% exactly the same way all the time.

Although I thrive on structure and order, I’m an even bigger advocate for efficiency and productivity — so if there’s a better, faster way, I’ll continue to tweak my current system to adapt to my changing life and needs.

That said, I feel like it’s time for a follow-up post about my Top-5 List… if for nothing else but to ease the frustration of all those perfectionists out there who are literally trying to figure out what 5 things they absolutely must finish each and every day 🙂

And if you’ve never heard of the concept of a Top-5 List, then definitely keep reading… because this is one of the simplest ways I’ve found to organize and prioritize my daily to-dos!

what is a top 5 list

What is your Top-5 List?

My Top-5 List is simply a handful of tasks that must be accomplished in a given day. Basically, if these tasks are not completed by the end of the day, I’ll be in trouble and running behind.

Some examples from my own life might be: prep and make dinner for that night, attend a meeting or event at a specific time, wash a load of whites because we are all out of kitchen towels, prepare for a podcast interview later that night, finish painting the trim in the bedroom because the carpeting is arriving the next day, etc. etc.

Sometimes they are work-related, sometimes they are house projects, sometimes they are personal… but they are always important for that specific day.

Is this list separate from your regular daily to-do list?

No. All my daily to-dos are on ONE list each day. In my opinion, things get way too confusing if I make a bunch of little lists — so EVERYTHING is always on one list for the day. I even group all my personal and business to-dos together since I do both personal and business tasks every day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a daily chore, a weekly to-do that I’m planning to tackle that day, a meeting, errands I need to run, a phone call to make, emails to send, work-related, personal, family, etc. When it comes to my daily to-do’s it’s ALLLLLL on one list!

I will make a separate grocery list (which isn’t really a to-do list) and Dave and I always have a short list of house projects we want to tackle or things we want to look for on Craigslist — but again, those really don’t play any part in our DAILY TO-DO’s so it wouldn’t even make sense to put those items on my daily to-do list.

I love knowing that I have just one simple daily to-do list that I can work from each day.

How do you differentiate your Top-5 Tasks if you don’t make a separate list?

Since I’m the only one that looks at my daily to-do list, I usually just know which items are my Top-5. However, often, I’ll simply mark them with a star next to them or circle them with my pen.

Nothing fancy, but it works for me 🙂

Where do you make your Top-5 List?

I almost always make my daily to-do (including my Top-5 List) in my daily planner — under the appropriate day.

This seems to make the most sense for me, but scratch paper, sticky notes, or even an emailed list to yourself would all work.

There is no “one right way ” to do this!

How exactly does a Top-5 List help you?

I’m the type of person who often values quantity over quality (sad but very true) so I would rather complete 15 small projects that might not necessarily need to get done that day versus the 3 larger, more time-consuming projects that MUST be finished before I go to bed that night.

So for me, a Top-5 List helps me to know exactly what important tasks I must do each day and then mentally create time in my schedule to finish those tasks (a.k.a. it helps reduce my procrastination!)

Also, I almost always make my daily to-do list before I go to bed. This means that before I go to bed, I’ve already thought about what important things I need to do the following day, and when I wake up, I can get right to work — again, reducing the natural human tendency for procrastination.

Do you always have exactly 5 things on your Top-5 List?

Nope. Sometimes I have 6 or 7, sometimes only 2 items.

As I mentioned above, the number 5 is just a general estimate and a good number to shoot for. If you only ever put 1 item on your list each day, you won’t ever accomplish much. On the other hand, if you’re consistently putting 15-20 items on your “Top-5 List” every day, you’ll probably end up discouraged by your lack of productivity.

The important thing for me is that I can acknowledge and differentiate between the handful of tasks that absolutely MUST be completed each day form the many other tasks I would like to accomplish but could push back a day or two if necessary.

By sticking to roughly 5 super important tasks each day, I’m able to hone in and focus on those tasks without feeling overwhelmed by everything I need to accomplish in 24 hours.

Do you always do your Top-5 List first?

Again, my answer is no.

Sometimes, the more important Top-5 Tasks are also urgent tasks that I try to take care of first thing in the morning (usually before the kids wake up). However, most of the time, these tasks are very important… but NOT urgent.

They need to be accomplished before I go to bed that night, but they also often require a fair amount of focused time and energy — which means I’ll probably save them until Dave is home from school or until after the kids are in bed.

However, that means that if I’m going to be working on a few of my Top-5 Tasks after the kids are in bed, I can’t expect to do laundry, dishes, meal planning, or run errands at that time.

By having a plan and knowing that I have important things to do after the kids are sleeping, I can better plan the rest of my day to (hopefully) cross off many of the smaller tasks before bedtime.

Do you ever add or remove items from your Top-5 List?

Yes, all the time!

There are many times when I’ll get an email from a VA client or company that I’m working with on my blog saying they need to push something back or speed something up. In those situations, I either add or remove items from my Top-5 List according to how the plans have changed.

Similarly, if one of my kids wakes up in a pile of puke, my Top-5 List is going to instantly change to include “wash all of the bedding and clothes and pillows that are covered in puke”.

And when I get a message from my tech people explaining that my blog will be inaccessible for most of the day due to the entire cloud server “blowing up”… but that they are working to fix it, you better believe my Top-5 List is going to change since I won’t be able to do any blog work that day!

Although I’m not a huge fan of change and unpredictability, I will admit to being fairly flexible when it comes to my daily to-dos and my Top-5 list. I rarely hesitate to move things around to better accommodate my daily schedule and any change in plans.

I want my to-do list to work for me… not the other way around 🙂

What do you do if you don’t finish a Top-5 Task on a given day?

I will say, first of all, this does not happen very often because I do try really hard to stay on top of the important things and finish my Top-5 Tasks everyday.

However, if one or more tasks go undone for a variety of reasons, I would do 1 of 3 options:

1. Put it as the very first thing I do the next morning — and probably wake up pretty early to do it (if possible).

2. Consider if I can find someone else to do the task for me — and then contact that person the next day.

3. Evaluate whether that undone task was actually as important as I made it out to be.

So often, I’ve found that if I continually push a task off “until later” it’s actually not nearly as important or essential as I once thought it was. So if one of my Top-5 Tasks is left undone at the end of the day, it’s usually because I know, deep down, that it’s just not a priority for me. If it was, I would have made the time.

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So there you have it — many of the common questions I’ve gotten about my infamous “Top-5 List” (with my answers).

If you’ve had questions or were wondering how the whole thing worked, I hope this posts has cleared things up for you a bit.

And for those of you who have never tried making a Top-5 List… I hope this post inspired and encouraged you to give it a try.

It literally takes me 3 or 4 minutes to make my to-do list before I go to bed each night (with another 30 seconds to mark what my Top-5 Tasks are) and I cannot even begin to explain how much time, energy, stress, and confusion that 3-4 minutes saves me the following day.

Are you a Top-5 List maker? How has it helped you?

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Leave a comment


  1. Jennifer C


    Although I don’t do a top 5 list everyday for day to day tasks, I am a teacher and have a top 3-5 list for my breaks. I always have a loooong to do list for summer of things that have gone undone all year, and then I get upset when in the fall alot of them are still undone, since I know I won’t be able to think straight again until June, LOL! So last summer I made a top 3 list of longer-term things that had to be done before the summer was over (for me it was refinance our mortgage, get new window blinds for the house, and get life insurance). I did all those 3 things, things that are very hard for me to get done when I am working, and I felt like I had accomplished something for a change by the time Sept. rolled around.


    Andrea Reply:

    Love this! Dave and I do similar things with big projects we want to tackle over the summer (we know how the teacher schedule works over here!)


  2. S


    Thanks for writing this. I was waiting for it after you mentioned it a few weeks ago. I think the part I’m still not getting is how do you ever decide a long-term or non-urgent task (like estate planning or getting back in touch with someone or fixing something annoying in the house) gets on today’s Top-5 list instead of yesterday’s or tomorrow’s/next month’s/next year’s? It’s easy to know to put wash kitchen towels when you’re out or pay bills that are due or go to a meeting on the list, but what about the stuff that doesn’t have a deadline or a consequence right away if you don’t do it?


    Andrea Reply:

    Well, I guess there is no 5-step answer for that question. I think you just need to sit down and figure out what your long-term goals are. Then break those down into smaller chunks and set some self-imposed deadlines to start those tasks.

    There will ALWAYS be plenty of day-to-day tasks to keep you busy, so you just need to decide when enough is enough and you’re going to tackle that annoying house project or finally make the call to your estate planning attorney. Maybe pick one or two bigger long-term projects a week to add to your top 5 list on 2 different days and just blog along a little at a time.


  3. Debbie W.


    This post was really helpful to me. Thabk you for being so willing to respond to your readers’ questions!


  4. Renee Spindle


    This is a great post Andrea. For me a friendly reminder to stay focused, and the “Top 5” will hopefully help that cause. My biggest distraction is getting side-tracked! Here’s to better focus and more productivity!


  5. Erin


    I started making top 5 lists after reading stumbling on your original top 5 post. It has definitely helped me get more accomplished. I’m still not great at making a list every day and on the days I work, my goal is to accomplish 2 things. I appreciate how you stress flexibility. When I started reading your blog, it really gave me hope that I could get our home more organized. It has been slow, but it’s happening!


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Erin! And so glad this is working for you. I think with any important, worthwhile, lifestyle changes, progress is only slow when you’re doing it RIGHT… so I think you’re doing OK 🙂


  6. Julie Gosnell


    I could not agree more about have a top five list. I have found that it makes it easier for me to focus on a few important things than write down every little thing that had to be completed I would feel so overwhelmed.


  7. Siobhan


    Thanks so much Andrea! I’m a work in progress with making a “realistic” list of important to dos for the day…I definitely have perfectionistic tendencies. Your posts on this topic have been very helpful to me 🙂


    Andrea Reply:

    Yes! That “realistic” list can be a tough one to master 🙂