Step-by-Step Improvement: Five Ways to Build a Better To-Do List

“Eat a live frog the first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” —American humorist Mark Twain

How do you eat Twain’s live frog? Most people assume he meant to choke it down all at once, but on the other hand, we’ve also learned the only way to eat an elephant is a bite at a time. You get some jarring cognitive dissonance when you take both ideas into account at once, but they do share a point: both the elephant and the frog represent big or unpleasant projects we must make progress on before we can move on to other tasks.

Now, just because you think you know how and when to eat your frog doesn’t mean you’re right. Most of us assume we have a handle on how to structure our to-do lists, but even the best practice doesn’t remain a best practice forever. In fact, practical experience means nothing when you don’t pair it with careful observation and occasional experimentation. Try these five nonintuitive ways to improve your “to-dos” and, consequently, your performance.

  1. The medium really is the message. How you compile your to-do list can matter. While you’ve got about a million digital apps you can use to maintain your list, writing down something longhand may help you remember it better, consider it more deeply as you write, and ensure you plant the seed in your subconscious. My father was a firm believer in writing down ideas, and to this day I know professionals who write out their daily to-do lists on paper.

  2. Be prepared to drop most tasks if your priorities change. Don’t attempt to schedule every minute of the day, or you’ll have no flexibility when (not if) something unexpected pops up. If you have “found time,” be ready to get a jump on an important project. Be ready to let the less important fall off your list if something takes more time than expected, or an emergency rears its ugly head. This means each evening before you leave, you should have a list of to-do’s in value order…at least as they stand in that moment.

  3. Match your list to your biorhythms. While I think the Twain method is sound advice for many, it assumes we’re all at our energy peak in the morning. Some people, however, don’t reach their energy peak until after lunch, so breakfasting on frog-legs just doesn’t work. If you’re more of an afternoon hawk, don’t cram your hardest tasks down your gullet right after settling in. Take care of basic “housekeeping” and other simple tasks instead, so you can make some progress on your day—even if it isn’t much. Then, when your engine is fully charged, put the hammer down on the top-priority tasks requiring focus and thought.

  4. Leverage the Zeigarnik effect. You know that feeling of impending doom when a project is looming over you, but you have no idea where to start?  That’s called the Zeigarnik effect, after the Soviet researcher who defined it in the 1920s. You already know to break big tasks down into manageable chunks, so use the feeling to push you to find effective ways to do it. Even if it’s harder than expected, a focused study may help you find the right fracture plane that lets you carve your big task into pieces, like a gem cutter splitting a diamond.

  5. Make a Done List to spur yourself on. This lists the tasks you’ve already completed. It’s kind of the anti-Zeigarnick, because it bolsters a sense of accomplishment—especially if you include all the things not originally on your list. We often do more than we expected in a certain timeframe, so these extra tasks may cheer you up a bit (I can click the Completed filter on my Outlook Tasks). On the other hand, they can also help you get back on track by revealing items you don’t need to do. Further, if the number of items completed is fewer than it should be, it may spur you to reboot your productivity and boost your performance.

From First Principals

At first glance, you may think your to-do list is too basic to need fixing; but these tips prove that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, going back to first principals can reveal cracks in your methodology that let you down. It’s up to you to patch those cracks, overhaul your productivity engine, and get it back in high gear.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland