Tame Your To-Do List

We can do more by getting more out of our lists. Here’s how.

Ever get to the end of your day and realize that your to-do list is barely done?

I’ve definitely had my share of days when I feel super busy but strangely unproductive. And when I look at that list and see all the things that aren’t crossed off, I get a sinking feeling of frustration and guilt.

But instead of beating ourselves up for not paring our list down, there are steps we can take to make sure that we’re planning and prioritizing with just a bit more clarity, consciousness and self-compassion.

Completing vs. contributing

The first thing to remember is that there’s a big difference between “undone” and “unfulfilled.” t’s quite possible that the reason you didn’t get to something on your list is because you were attending to someone else’s need: An unexpected ask for help from a coworker. An unplanned client request. A sudden family emergency. We can’t control unforeseen circumstances, so we shouldn’t feel badly when they creep into our calendar and eat away at the clock.

Instead of feeling exasperated at the end of the day by what’s left undone, ask yourself a different question: Not “what did I accomplish?” but “how did I contribute?” We can still make a dent in people’s lives even if we don’t make a dent in our list. By that measure, we may be more productive than we think.

That’s a good head space to create for ourselves when things go off script. But there are also proactive steps we can take to tame our lists so that we can actually feel more energized and accomplished at the end of each day. Here are three.

Check your expectations

Some lists are doomed from the start. They’re an unwieldly mix of the complex and aspirational. So start by right-sizing your list so that it only features a few tasks that can be reasonably completed in the time allotted. Try optimizing your list with a simple inventory: Review the types of activities you’re committing to and which ones never seem to be crossed off. If the same task is routinely left incomplete, you might be better off time-blocking for that particular activity or bunching your commitments differently.

You can also pare down your list by coming up with a “to-don’t” list — the time-sucking, energy-draining activities that keep kicking around for no good reason. Cross them off and never look back. Choose your commitments carefully, and you’re more likely to deliver.

Pay attention to your intentions

If you notice certain items tend to linger on your list, it could be a sign that you’re not approaching your work in an optimal way. Start by paying attention to your intentions to determine if the reason you’re not getting something done is by design.

Do you know where to start? Is the task too difficult? Would you be better off breaking big tasks into smaller chunks? Is there a better time in the day to do them? Once you know which things are getting it the way, you’ll be in a better position to get things done.

Enlist support from others

Despite our best efforts, there’s still a limit to how much we can do on our own. Try identifying which items might be better off on a “to do together” list. Find partners to help you mark the job done. This doesn’t mean asking others to do the job for you — you definitely don’t want to add to someone else’s list! It simply means identifying support partners who may have a particular skill or experience that can help you work through that task more strategically and quickly. They may have some insight, tip or resource that can save you time and energy, so tap into them for help.

There are other benefits of broadening your support. From these small interactions, you may end up brokering unexpected and impactful collaborations down the road. Or you may find yourself in a position to reciprocate in the future by offering your own expertise or resources, building goodwill and capital that may come in handy later.

If you’re feeling like your to-do list is never done, then start checking your expectations, paying attention to your intentions and seeking support. By managing our priorities and practices differently, we can do more and feel better at the end of each day.

Leave a Reply