How to Approach Your To-Do Lists?

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How to approach the to-do list … without letting it eat your soul. Check out my way of approaching the to-do lists and make the day more productive.

A to-do list is a tool to help you get stuff done. For yourself. For your job. For your family. For your goals. The list itself is not an end or a goal, it is a method you’ve decided to use to reach some goals. So it has no business running your life or keeping you from getting to the stuff that matters.

Isn’t that what happens so often, though? The to-do list turns into a bully. It grows larger and starts kind of looming over you, hanging out there, chuckling in this menacing way, nudging you a little too hard, getting pushy.

To-Do List

Getting mean. And you’ve created this monster.

Guess what? You have the power to deconstruct it.

Approach the list knowing you’re the boss of it. This list doesn’t own you.

Approach the list understanding that it is the servant and you are the master.

It is the tool and you are the craftsman. Or woman. Whatever. Craftsperson.

The list serves you, not the other way around. You can put the list down and walk away. You can toss the list in the trash. You can delete everything off of it. You can burn it. You can do any of those things if you want to, because this is your life and you are the one who brought the list into it.

Any haunting sense of obligation, the guilt, the screaming voices of undone things in your head are also coming out of your own psyche.

The list is not alive. It has not feelings. It doesn’t care. It won’t be disappointed. The only feelings you have to deal with here are yours.

Really. Even the feelings of the people who may or may not be affected by whatever you choose to do or not do on your list… even their feelings are theirs to deal with, not yours. Ultimately (and always) you only get to be responsible for yourself.

Approach the list ready to prune it to a healthy size.

Every spring my husband goes outside with a pair of freshly sharpened pruning shears and just prunes the hell out of our young trees. Every year I flinch when I walk outside afterward and see the pile of little branches. All the clippings. All the new growth, sheared off.

It’s kind of painful to see so much cut away, so much potential.

But every summer those trees grow like mad, pushing all their energy into the remaining branches that, despite a multitude of kids climbing on them, are strong and flexible and healthy.

An unpruned tree has to divide its energy too much. It has to share all the nutrients among a myriad of branches, so it can’t put a lot into any single branch.

An unpruned list requires that you divide your energy too much. You have to share all your time and resources among a myriad of tasks, so you aren’t able to put a lot into any single project.

You’re stretched too thin.

Prune your list.

Here are some methods for a shorter list:

Three Things Only: Laura Vanderkam talks about using this method after having a baby and finding “that my reduced hours hadn’t drastically changed my output in terms of articles or projects.”

One of the great things about picking only three things for your daily to-do list is that “Because you’re only trying to do 3 things, you choose them wisely. They tend to be the most important things for you to be doing–the things that are most likely to advance you toward your professional or personal goals. You ignore all the other noise.”

The Post-It Note List: In the words of Mark McGuinness writing for 99U, “One of my most valuable productivity tools is a stack of Post-It notes. Not the smallest size, but the 3″ x 3″ squares. The top Post-It contains my to-do list for today, and today only. Because my day is a limited size, I figure it makes sense to limit the size of my to-do list. If I can’t fit the day’s tasks on the Post-It, I’m not likely to fit them into the day.”

McGuinness writes down his One Big Thing for the day and then adds other tasks , but only as many as can fit on the Post-It. What happens? “Two great things about my Post-It system are that, firstly, it forces me to think hard about my priorities at the beginning of each day. Every item has to earn its place on that list, so it keeps me disciplined about doing the most important things. And secondly, when I start work I know – barring emergencies – exactly what I need to get through today.”

The Six-Box To Do List: I’ve used this method before with success. When you want to fit your whole life’s tasks on a list instead of, say, your work tasks only, a Post-It or a three-things limit might not work for you. Six Boxes might.

Peter Bregman offered a free download with instructions to identify up to five things — no more — that you want to focus on for the year and write one at the top of each box on the page.

Then, generate your daily to-do’s in those boxes. You should spend 95% of your time in those areas; take anything that doesn’t fit into one of those areas of annual focus and get it off your to-do list. The 6th box labeled “the other 5%” is like sugar — a little might be OK but your day should never contain more than 5% of the activities that don’t fit into your five areas of annual focus.

The Two-Column List: This method, described by Gwen Moran in an article for Fast Company, is used by Robert C. Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.

Pozen “divides his list into two columns. On the left-hand side, he make a chronological list of the things that need to be done, such as meetings, conference calls, and appointments. On the right-hand side he lists what he hopes to get done during those events, like coming up with a plan or discussing a particular issue.

Underneath his chronological list he include items that have to be done that day, but aren’t assigned to a particular time, in order of priority.”

Approach the list with a qualifying standard.

You know how runners have to complete a course in a certain time to qualify for, say, the Boston Marathon?

The stuff on your to-do list should have to qualify itself in order to be there. How do you know it belongs? Why is it on your list? Who put it there? Why? Should you be spending your time on it?


Using any one of the pruning methods listed above will help you apply a standard; when you’re pruning, to a very reduced list, you automatically have to come up with some criteria for what belongs and what doesn’t.

Here’s a quick reminder: the stuff that belongs on your list should connect, in some direct way, with your highest goals and best desires.

If it only connects with your unwanted obligations, old social duties, leftover relationships, forced interactions, and half-hearted interests, it’s not qualified.

Approach the list without guilt

Approaching your to-do list in a sane way requires some bravery.

You have to step out of the comfort zone of doing stuff the way everybody else does it .

You have to quit worrying so much about balance, about making people happy, about fulfilling unrealistic expectations, about keeping codependent family and friends afloat.

You have to say no, first to yourself, and then to other people.

No is a good thing to say. Freedom isn’t different than responsibility. Freedom IS responsibility. When you take responsibility for your time and your task list, you get freedom because they’re the same thing.

Guilt is counter-productive. Guilt is not objective. Guilt is trained into us from many different sources.

The best thing you can do with guilt is ask it a lot of questions: where do you come from? why do I feel you? what are you doing for me? what is your end-goal, guilt? what will it take for me to stop feeling guilty? who let you in here? what good have you done in my life? what will happen if I listen to you? what will happen if I stop listening for you?

If you discover that your guilt is telling you something important (maybe that you should start taking care of your own body better, instead of running it ragged and feeding it icky stuff), then make some changes and build some habits to do that important thing.

But do that important thing because you understand it’s important, and when you understand the what-and-why of importance, you can let go of the guilt.

Guilt is a nagging reminder. You don’t need nagging and reminders for stuff that you realize is important and incorporate, appropriately, into your life.

And you don’t nagging and reminders for stuff that you realize is unimportant and escort, appropriately, out of your life.

Approach your to-do list knowing you’ve already done so much.

I love the concept behind iDoneThis or Joe’s Goals or any of a myriad of habit tracking tools. You get to check things off, sure, like a to-do list; but you can see all the data of what you’ve already done.

You can see your chains or streaks, your days of steady forward movement, your dips, and losses, you get back at it. Keep track of your accomplishments. This is not so you can be a Captain D-Bag and talk about how awesome you are all the time.

This is so that you can…

  • realize what you really care about in life (because that’s what you’ll be doing)
  • realize what you need help with or need to get rid of (because those are the things you’ll consistently procrastinate on doing)
  • realize that you’re capable (because hey! look! you’ve done stuff!)

If you use one of the methods for a shorter to-do list, why not keep the old ones, with all those scratched-off items, for a week or a month. Let a stack accumulate in your drawer. Glance at it now and then, and see what you’ve accomplished.

And realize that you can accomplish what matters to you.

Take responsibility for what gets to be on your to-do list, and you get the freedom to be doing what you really care about.

This way we can approach a to-do list without any hiccups.

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