5 Mistakes You're Making with Your To-Do List

5 Mistakes You're Making with Your To-Do List
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5 Mistakes You're Making with Your To-Do List

Do you ever find yourself frustrated at the end of the day staring at all of the unchecked items left on your to-list? Changing the way you craft the list could make all the difference. 

With so many things begging for your time and attention it’s imperative to face the day with a clear plan, and it all starts with an organized to-do list. 

Today, we’re diving into five common mistakes you could be making while crafting your to-do list and how to fix them so you can make progress on your projects and celebrate those small wins along the way.

 

Mistake #1: Too many to-do lists

Where do you keep your to-do list? If you use a combination of Asana, a paper notebook, phone notes, screenshot images, and you have post-it notes littering your desk, it’s time to consolidate.

 

The problem with having too many lists is that it’s a symptom of not having a reliable system. If you have too many to-do lists, it’s time to simplify. Start by narrowing your lists down to two places. One should be a high-tech option, such as Asana tasks, Trello or digital tool and the other use a low-tech analog option such as a notebook or a paper planner.

Now, you’ll have a trustworthy system in place and know exactly where to look to plan out your day with ease.

Mistake #2: You don’t have a list at all

Are you trying to remember your to-do list in your head? When you depend on your memory to pick up where you left off, your bandwidth is taken up by remembering what you need to do instead of doing the work.
 

Think of it as having too many tabs open in your brain. Holding on to different pieces of information stands in the way of directing your energy towards taking action, being creative, innovating and problem solving.

In fact, David Allen, author and creator of the Getting Things Done system, famously said:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”


It’s best to get in the habit of using your digital and/or analog to-do list so you can focus on the task at hand.

 

Mistake #3: Your list is too long.

If your list is a mile long, a feeling of being overwhelmed sets in and can be paralyzing. When this is the case, the best thing to do is to break the tasks down into two lists. It may seem counterintuitive, but having one overarching Master List and one Today List can help you focus on a manageable set of tasks.

The Master List is a complete mindsweep of every single outstanding task in your professional and personal life, typically captured in digital form. Because there are so many outstanding tasks on a Master List, it can feel like you never get to the bottom of it. That’s where the Today List comes into play. 

A Today List is a stand alone list with only the tasks to be completed on a given day. It helps narrow your focus, creates a chance for small wins, and allows for a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

 

Start by scanning your Master List and pull the top priorities onto your Today List, then take it one step further and timeblock those items on your Today List into your calendar.

Mistake #4: Your to-do list is too short

How can a to-do list be too short? One of the most common mistakes is to have a list of projects instead of writing out individual tasks. A project is anything that requires a series of tasks to accomplish while a task is one action.

For example, your to-do list may look like this:

  • dentist appointment
  • car
  • new hire

 

These three things end up staying on your to-do list for weeks because they all require multiple steps.  

Here’s an example of how to effectively breakdown the above projects into an action item:

  • research three dentists near your home
  • schedule car maintenance
  • onboard that new hire


When you have one clear task to complete on your list, it's not only easier to complete, but you also have the ability to time block for a single task and celebrate more wins.

 

Mistake #5: Your list is not actionable.

Let’s go back to our earlier example:

  • dentist appointment
  • car
  • new hire

These are nouns, not verbs. Therefore, none of these are actionable.

Our brain sees ‘dentist appointment’ and has to do the mental gymnastics to figure out what actually needs to be done.

When you require your brain to do all of this work just to accomplish one thing, it will not only take longer to complete but also make it more likely for you to procrastinate. 

Instead, make sure every line item contains a verb:

  • research three dentists 
  • schedule car maintenance 
  • draft job description

The difference between these two methods is the first one requires your brain to do a lot of thinking, while the other one gives your brain a break. Make things as obvious as possible so you can easily jump in and take action. 

Bonus- Mistake #6: Your list is not prioritized.

If you’re just starting with whatever is at the top of the list and you’re working your way from top to bottom, you could be sabotaging your productivity.

If you get to the end of the day and feel like you've done a lot of things and you've been busy all day, but somehow you didn't get to the important projects, that's because you were spending your time on unimportant things.

To prevent this, try labeling your top three tasks and prioritize getting those completed first. How can you strategically structure your time to tackle those tasks that reap the biggest reward?

What’s your next step? What's one thing that you'll do next week to build a better to-do list?

About the author

Anna Dearmon Kornick

Anna Dearmon Kornick is a Time Management Coach and host of It's About Time, a podcast about work, life and balance. As Head of Community at Clockwise, Anna is on a mission to help the world spend time on what matters.

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