Power-Up Your To-Do List with Action Verbs

Language makes the difference

Adolfo Ramírez Corona
3 min readMar 11, 2022

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To-do lists are one of the most common power and popular uses for writing, particularly for not-taking.

There are different methods, systems, apps, services…

And what about levels of structure?

From the simple to-do list on a post-it or a napkin, to very complex systems with hierarchies, folders, tags, colors, dates…

Whatever level of structure you keep in your notes or whatever napkin or complex app you use, there is a simple linguistic trick you should apply.

Photo by Torbjørn Helgesen on Unsplash

A mindset shift

Writing — as a human activity — perhaps began with some kind of to-do list: to list who was going hunting, how much food was stored, or the song to chant.

Code of Hammurabi is a to-do list in a certain way (like any set of rules). Buddhism scriptures are full of lists (Four Noble Truths, for example).

Today, using to-do lists is part of our daily activities.

In any case, beyond structure, method, or tools, we use to forget the importance of the words we use for our to-do lists.

Let's see an example. You have to write an email to John, test a new software called NeoApp, update a spreadsheet titled ‘More numbers.xls’. You write down:

* To-do list
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- John’s email
- NeoApp
- More numbers

More or less is what we use to note down, right?

Once you read ‘NeoApp’ you know what you are talking about, no need to specify, correct?

Watch it again. What do you see?

Yes. Nouns. Objects.

What is missing? Verbs. Action verbs.

Why? An action verb is a form of distanced self-talk or self-distancing.

Language makes the difference

Writing in the second person is an excellent regulatory mechanism not just for emotions but for thinking and behavior. It’s a way to give your brain one specific instruction in the form of an imperative sentence.

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Adolfo Ramírez Corona

Author, psychotherapist, coach—Human behavior, UX, media & audiences—Father, husband, meditator—Courses & coaching: antifragilewriting.com—More adolforismos.com