How to Make Effective To-Do Lists

We live busy lives. Most of us are juggling quite a few balls at all times, so it makes sense that we need a way to keep things straight. Enter the humble to-do list.

effective to-do lists

It may seem like a simple thing: You make a list of what you have to do, and then you go do it, right? Then why are so many people struggling to accomplish the tasks they set for themselves? They’re making three major mistakes.

Almost everyone I work with has issues with their to-do list failing to serve them as it should. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a coaching session and watched a client rifle through pages upon pages in their notebook, trying to organize months of scattered and tattered bits of lists and notes.

What a waste of time. We’ve gotta stop this craziness! There are three important elements of creating an effective to-do list that too many people are missing.

1. Fresh Start

We could debate the merits of paper versus electronic to-do lists all day. I love apps like Asana for their ability to be granular and allow delegation of subtasks to your team. But when it comes to your core to-do list—the meat and potatoes of what you’re actually going to do that day—I recommend using a fresh sheet of blank paper. If you must have it in digital format, use a blank Word document.

I prefer using paper because when you take the time to write out your to-do list on a daily basis, you’re much less likely to transfer things from day to day to day. As you find yourself continually writing down a task that never seems to get done, you’ll realize what’s actually important to you. It will help you make a decision and quit constantly moving the goal post.

Every morning, start by ripping off yesterday’s list from your notepad. Transfer what you need (try to keep this minimal). Close out any completed tasks. And then recycle it. Do not keep your old to-do lists. This only leads to clutter and confusion. You’re done with that list, so toss the list!

2. Pick and Choose

I’ve written before about our tendency to put huge projects on our to-do lists as if they’re a single actionable task. We are forever trying to paint the barn without realizing what that really means. The second key to effective to-do list creation is understanding what to put on your list.

If you need to hire a new account executive, for example, don’t put “hire new account executive” on your to-do list. There are at least four distinct things you need to do before you can actually do the hiring. You need to write a job description, post the description, schedule interviews, and conduct interviews with qualified candidates; only then can you make the hire.

Every single one of those subtasks is an actionable item that needs to go on your list. Each day, your list should be made up of the next actionable items for all your in-progress projects, rather than the project at large. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself moving that big, unstructured task from day to day, and you won’t even know where to start.

3. Eat the Frog

Studies have shown tasks that take the most mental effort should be done first thing in the morning. If you do so, you’re likely to accomplish more throughout the entire day, because you’ll feel like you climbed a mountain right out of the gate. If you leave those big tasks until the end of the day, you’ll be too wiped out even to attempt them.

It pays to get the hard stuff out of the way first. Eat that frog! If you procrastinate on these tough tasks, you’ll get less done for the day because you will have spent all day telling yourself about how much you’re going to do “later.” As a result, you end up doing even less earlier in the day (and you probably won’t accomplish those “for later” tasks either!).

Making a to-do list might seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re not doing it right, you’re limiting yourself and hurting your earning potential. Apply the three tips above to tighten up your task list and get down to the business of getting things done.

Until next time—go sell some stuff!


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