Reining in Your To-Do List Monster: Six Mistakes You May Be Making, and How to Fix Them

“Sometimes our stop-doing list needs to be bigger than our to-do list.” –Patti Digh, American self-help author.

As an experienced professional, you may think you know your way around a to-do list…but do you really? Possibly you’ve gotten a bit off track. Is that list you’re putting together really a to-do list, or just a big pile of things you wish you had time to do but don’t?

Whether your list has just a few tasks tough enough to make you cringe, 37 tasks that don’t matter much, or everything is marked “high priority,” you may be doing it wrong. Here are some common to-do list mistakes, along with ways of Doing It Right.

  1. There’s too much stuff on it. This is why I don’t like productivity philosophies that recommend you put everything in one pile before getting to work. Where do you even start when your list includes 127 things—especially recurring items—and you want to show consistent progress? You go back to first principles: triage, prioritizing, saying “no” to new work, giving work back to the people who ought to do it, and delegating tasks to others. Delegation works best for management; in fact, it’s expected.

  2. Not settling on a format. Pick one! I grew up with paper and used it for a long time. Early PDAs were a pain—sometimes literally, in the case of repetitive motion injuries. But modern tablets, smartphones, and laptops have come into their own, making electronic to-do lists easy. I use Outlook tasks and use the built-in task list on my Samsung Galaxy 8 (the task list is built into the meeting app). Hybrid paper/electronic schemas still work for some people—they use paper to jot things down during the day and then add “leftover” items to their electronic task lists, such as Evernote. I like Outlook tasks, because you can automatically turn emails into tasks and respond right from your task list.

  3. Not sticking to ONE app. Pick one to-do list app and learn everything about how to use it. If pen-and-paper works best for you, use that. One colleague finally abandoned pen-and-paper when he realized he could type faster than he could hand-write—and his handwriting was atrocious. Nowadays, to-do list apps for phone and laptop are common… maybe too common. Some people think they need different apps for different lists—or even the same list, if they use multiple devices. This belief is a productivity killer. Specialize. Most list apps, including Todoist, Asana, Wunderlist, and Monday, offer free test versions, with fairly inexpensive full versions you can upgrade to if you like them.

  4. Lumping big tasks. Many to-do list guides and gurus recommend focusing on 1-3 primary tasks daily, with a few minor ones to take up the slack. It’s a valid concept. But if your primary tasks are huge and monolithic, break them down into smaller pieces so you can easily visualize and track your progress. “Build a better operating system,” may be your one big annual goal, but it’s not something you can do in a day, and certainly not without delegating like crazy. At Microsoft, it takes hordes of people months or years to create each version of Windows.

  5. Treating it as a “have-to-do” list. This is common when a drop-dead deadline looms, or life’s been crazy and something’s already late. But it’s better to consider the things on your daily list as “want to” items you would like to achieve, but won’t damage your career or company if you don’t. When circumstances allow, design your schedule so you can postpone things in the face of unexpected emergencies, or just let them drop off the list if you run out of time.

  6. Forcing Someday items onto a daily list. You probably realize the need for multiple lists, with your daily High Impact Tasks (HIT) list headlining the show. Monthly and Yearly lists are important, too. Create a Someday list for less urgent but important things required to increase your productivity, and do things in pieces as you can. “Learn that new programming language” is a great Someday goal, but a terrible Daily one.

Zeroing Out Your List

How often do you actually finish your daily to-do lists without postponing items? Ever? You may look back and realize you often did do so five years ago, but never do now, having taken on a tougher job. Go back and learn some lessons from what you used to do—and use the tips here to start cutting. Be realistic each day—you can always look ahead if you finish. It’s tough to pare a to-list down to the bare essentials, but you have no choice if you want to stay productive without working 14-hour days.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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