How to Make To-Do Lists Work for You

stepping stonesAn effective to-do list helps you take action on the right priorities at the right time.

It’s a useful productivity tool that can bring a sense of order to your busy life.

But all too often, you find yourself rushing through tasks, finishing only a few to-dos, having items linger for weeks or months, and getting frustrated by unplanned events. A long list of to-dos and unfinished items can make you feel overwhelmed and unfocused.

To skillfully create and complete to-do lists, you need to know the reasons why they might not work and what you can do to make them work better:

Reason #1: You’re using too many mediums or the wrong medium.

Spreading out your to-do items among different mediums, from Google tasks to Outlook calendar to Wunderlust to your weekly planner, makes it harder to stay on track. Using a trendy to-do app, when a plain notepad is more your speed, also hampers your progress.

Solution: Choose one medium that’s right for you.  

Find the medium that suits you, makes it simple to update your to-dos, and is easily accessed throughout the day. You don’t have to test out every single application that comes your way. Stick with one that works.

My personal choice is a technologically backward hard cover, 24-hour daily appointment book that combines both my calendar and to-do list. This allows me to use one platform to focus on important events and critical tasks. Staying away from online to-do apps also reduces the time I spend logging on to see my to-dos, only to end up surfing the Web.

Reason #2: You have too many items on your to-do list.  

True productivity is not about doing many things in one day. It’s about working on your highest priorities that have real impact. Having too many items on your list can lead to scattered attention and wasted energy.

Solution:  Keep it short and simple.

Be realistic with how much time and effort it takes to complete your to-dos. Let’s assume you have 8 hours in a typical work day. Completing 6 items that each takes an hour or 20 items that each takes 15 minutes is within your reach.

But what if each item actually requires more hours or more minutes to be done effectively? What about when you’re waiting for a response, feedback or approval? What happens to your productivity when you’re sleepy, not engaged, or feeling stuck? How is your focus affected when the telephone rings, an email pops up, or someone walks into your office?

Limit your to-do list to a few (preferably three) very important tasks that you can realistically do in a day. Keep the list closed. Add items throughout the day only when they are both critical and urgent; otherwise put them on tomorrow’s to-do list. Make room for lag time, delays, interruptions, distractions, or just plain lethargy.

You can also chunk your action items into batches. If you need to reply to emails, set time aside to respond to a group of them, instead of responding to each email upon receipt. Chunking related tasks together helps you to simplify your to-dos.

Reason #3: You have the wrong items on your to-do list.

Cluttering your to-do list with tasks you don’t want to do, or at least don’t need to do, sets you up for needless frustration. Life doesn’t get more fulfilling or rewarding just because your day is packed with activities.

Solution: Be more selective.

If you’re not eager to do a task, ask yourself whether it’s vital for you to personally complete. If it is, face the music and take action. If it’s not, dump it from your list, delegate the task, or move it to your someday/maybe list

Being more selective helps you create space for tasks that generate flow and are truly significant to you.  Don’t clog up your day listening to seminars or attending events just because they’re free.

Reason #4: You define your items too broadly.  

End goals and big projects are the worst types of to-dos. Seeing items like “build your website,” “create annual report,” or “prepare presentation slides” are intimidating. Because they are so huge, they do little to trigger action.

Solution: Break down goals and projects into tiny action steps.

Your to-dos need to be easy to follow, execute and accomplish. Divide big tasks into smaller sub-tasks. Define them in detail and make them action-oriented.

Start with the first physical action that you can take, such as “call web designer for price quotes,” “schedule meeting with accountant,” or “select design for slides.”

Include telephone numbers, website links, self-imposed due dates or external deadlines, and any other information you need to take the first step.

Reason #5: You focus on minor tasks and ignore your big agenda.     

You could spend a day preparing to plan without actually creating or executing an action plan. Instead of addressing your big-ticket item, you get busy checking off easy tasks that do not  further your main agenda. You can argue that replying to emails and running errands are unavoidable. But when will you get to your most crucial tasks?

While doing something might be more productive than doing nothing, you need to watch for “productive procrastination” (doing things to keep busy to avoid things that really need to get done.)

Solution: Do the most important/difficult task when you’re at your peak.

In Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Brian Tracy advises us to start each day by doing the most difficult thing on our to-do list (i.e., “eat the frog”). That way, even if you achieve only one task that day, it’s an important one. You also get the feeling of accomplishment that helps you build momentum and makes the rest of your day easier.

While the “eat the frog” concept makes sense in theory and often works, it can be a hard practice to follow. Some of us are morning persons. Some of us are night owls. Some of us are most energetic in the late mornings or late afternoons.

Knowing your own peaks and valleys is crucial to completing your to-dos. Tune in and observe when you are most mentally astute and physically alert. Work on difficult tasks that require the most focus, creativity and grit during those times. Do routine, no-brainer work when you’re at your low.

Reason #6: You’re too hard on yourself

Powering through your to-do list as if you were a machine can be self-defeating and demotivating. Stressing yourself out with micro-detailed lists can kill spontaneity and shut out unexpected opportunities.

Solution: Give yourself a break and celebrate wins.

Missing a few tasks here and there is normal. You can’t predict with precise accuracy how long each task will take. Stuff happens.

Your energy is limited. Discipline and willpower can only get you so far. You need to take your body’s natural rhythms into account. Take time to relax, renew and reflect.

Just because you didn’t get through your entire to-do list doesn’t mean you weren’t productive. Maybe you didn’t make the planned sales call. But perhaps you received an unsolicited call from an ideal prospect and negotiated a great deal. Keep a separate “done list” to reflect the things you did accomplish.


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Photo by: Maria Keays