December 6, 2018

Make a Smarter To-do List


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Are you surprised to hear that you can declutter your to-do list and make it smarter and more actionable as well?

Maybe you think of a to-do list simply a list with everything you need to do. You write everything down what you think you have to do now and in the future and what you feel you should have done in the past. 

But I say, that's not a to-do list (yet)

that's what I call a catch-all-list. Others call it a brain dump, a brain storm list, or a master list. It doesn't matter what you call it, it's for all the thoughts you have of things you *think* you want and/or need to do.. 

I find It's actually important, to have such a list, I can write down what ever floats around in my mind and then get back to being focused on what I want to accomplish right now. 

Then, when I am planning my next month, week or my day ahead, I can look over this catch-all-list and decide what makes it onto my to-do-list. 

If you follow me for a while you know I like quotes and this one is a good one: 

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. ~Peter Drucker

Put if through a filter first

Before I put something onto my To-Do-List, I put it through a filter to see 

  • does it makes sense to do it or is it just a 'nice idea'? Is it a must-do or just a nice-to-have? 
  • does it makes sense to do at this time of where I am at in my business (or life) and, 
  • is it aligned with my goals and projects for the year or would it be a distraction? 

Then, even if I decide it is something that belongs onto my to-do-list, it is important that you write it down the correct way.  

Project versus to-do

A common mistake people make (me included if I am not careful) we put a whole project on the to-do list, instead of an actionable task. For example your list might say: 

  • create new website
  • plan summer vacation
  • declutter papers in office and living room

The problem with this list is, when you have some time to work on one of these tasks you have to think first what you need to do. This costs your brain unnecessary energy.

Also, if it just says for example "declutter papers in office and living room" you are more likely to put it off and procrastinate on it. It's overwhelming, where should you even start? 

It sounds like a too big of a task (because it is not a task, it's actually a project) and you only have let's say 30 minutes, so you don't even start.

Projects need a lot of time and some planning, they don't belong on a to-do list. 

We need to break it into manageable chunks, small tasks, first and then writing them on our to-do list in a way that it is actionable.

Identify actionable steps

In the above example with the project "declutter paper in office and living room"  this could look like this:

  • Phase 1: collect all papers from the office and living room and put them in a box
  • Phase 2: Take a small stack of papers and sort them into 
    • to do
    • to file
    • to recycle/shred
  • Phase 3: Take a small stack of papers from the 'to-file' pile and file them away
  • Phase 4: schedule time for each paper from the to-do pile and then do the task in the allocated time. 
  • Phase 5: shred and recycle what you don't need anymore

Now we have tasks, and each task starts with a verb, an action word, that tells you exactly what you need to do: collect, sort, file, schedule, shred etc. (Also read my article on important paperwork and how to protect and store them). 

A to-do list just for the day 

Now you can start writing your to-do list, but I suggest you only put onto your to-do list what you can accomplish for that day, everything else stays on the catch-all list or the project list. 

There is that saying that we often overestimate what we can do in one day but underestimate what we can do in a year. 

So every evening you write a to-do list for the next day. Make sure you put the most important 3-5 tasks on that list - not more! Create your to-do list in a way that you can win the day, that you can feel good about yourself. 

You rather have only 3 task on your list, complete them and feel good about yourself than having 5 task on there, are not able to do it all and then feel like a failure.

As a last tip, you could use time boxing to get your 3-5 tasks on your to-do list done. I wrote about time boxing here

Let me know in the comments below, have you made the mistake to put too much on your daily to-do list? Or did you even catch yourself putting whole projects on the list? 

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  • Needed this nudge and clear direction right now. Thanks! Very timely and simplified, i.e., clear and easy to follow. Already working on it.

  • Hi Conny – Thank you for sharing the difference between a ‘to do’ and a project. I never knew this before! I only saw that that what needed to be done was a ‘to do’

    I also appreciate the discernment reminder between ‘need to have’ – and – ‘nice to have’s.

    Your posts and blogs are very helpful!


  • Great post! I see that my go-to to-do list style is actually a catch-all. Such a helpful insight. Now I can’t wait to break it up into actionable bites. I truly appreciate you and the knowledge you bring to the table.

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