How to make better to-do lists and get things done

Man with clipboard

How effective are you at making to-do lists and then getting those things done? Photo from

Are you a list maker? I make lists all the time—in notebooks, on scratch pads, on the back of envelopes, on my iPhone, in Notes on my computer or just in my head. I keep a running list of topics for this blog, work deadlines, business ideas, volunteer commitments and personal projects.

At least I’m consistent about making lists, but I’m not very consistent about accomplishing the things on my list. The old adage, “plan your work, work your plan,” is a good one, but the “work your plan” part is where I most often fall short.

Here are some things that I’ve discovered about my work habits that I know I need to improve. You may be in the same boat.

Attach deadlines to your to-do items. It’s not enough to simply list the items you’d like to get done. Write down when each one needs to be completed. Yes, I know, that sounds an awful lot like planning. But unless you attach a deadline, you’re not going to get it done.

Prioritize your lists. Your to-do list shouldn’t be like a grocery list, where all of the items have an equal chance of getting into your shopping cart. Most of the items on your to-do list can be grouped into categories based on relative importance or how much time you have to get them done. Create a system where high-priority items rise to the top of your list.

Tackle the toughest items when you are freshest. Time-management gurus will tell you to double down on your hardest tasks first thing in the morning when the day is young and you’ve got plenty of energy. I say identify those times in your day where you can knock out tasks uninterrupted for about two hours and your energy level is fairly high. It may not be first thing in the morning for you; perhaps it is late afternoon before you leave the office. Determine an optimum time and then use it judiciously to complete the big projects on your list.

Review your lists and cross off items that have been neglected. At the end of the day, and then at the end of the week, look over your list. If an item keeps getting pushed to the bottom and stays there, maybe it needs to come off. Either get it done or move on. Purge your lists.

Think in longer timeframes. Stephen Covey always urged that we take the long view in creating task lists and goals, hence the weekly planner. Let’s face it, there are days when we hardly make a dent in our to-do list. Meetings, family emergencies, unexpected assignments—they all conspire to pull us away from what we had hoped to accomplish for the day. Rather than obsessing over it, consider that you still have until the end of the week to finish the major items on your list.

Budget your time. My biggest downfalls are distractions and devoting too much time to low-priority tasks that might best be left to others. Pay attention to how you are spending your day. Are you constantly on Facebook and other social media? Do you get sucked into idle conversation with friends or colleagues? Do you end up in long meetings that have no clear purpose? Do you find yourself problem-solving for people who are perfectly capable of finding solutions on their own? Learn to focus and put some limits on your availability during your optimum periods of personal production. Then get a few items off your to-do list.

Use a system that works for you. Some carry 3×5 note cards in their pocket. Others have massive binders with fancy day planners. Lately, I’ve been using my iPhone and saving my lists to the cloud. That way I can access them on my laptop and desktop computers. Try a few systems, and see which one is best for you.

What are some strategies you use to stay on track with your to-do lists?

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4 Responses to How to make better to-do lists and get things done

  1. Steve Reynolds says:

    Hey Jay:
    Wonder who carries 3×5 cards in their pocket (for the past 50+ years)!
    Steve <

  2. udamann says:

    Jay – I’m by no means a master but I do find that, when it comes to meetings, I’m most productive when I attack my action items and assignments immediately. My only downfall is having to wait for responses from other parties. Sometimes providing deadlines helps with that.

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