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Is Your To-Do List Really About What You Intend To Do?

Your to-do list shouldn't feel like a foreign document describing an alternate universe. Instead, incorporate everyday (low-stress) tasks to make it feel like part of your day.

I’m a big believer in the to-do list. Every night I create a list of what I intend to do the next day, and it turns out I’m not the only one. A 2012 LinkedIn survey found that over 60% of professionals reported creating to-do lists, though curiously, only 11% of people said they actually got through everything on their lists. Research from IDoneThis, a service that lets teams share their accomplishments, found that when they had a to-do feature, 41% of to dos were never completed. And only 15% of "dones" actually started as "to dos."

In other words, our to-do lists often have little to do with our lives.

Why is that? The biggest problem, I think, is that our to-do lists don’t reflect what we actually intend to do. They reflect the things we think we should do, or that someone else has told us we are supposed to do. They contain items that we’d tackle in a different universe, or if we were different people. That’s all very nice, but there is no virtue in setting an assignment for yourself that you intend to ignore. Putting an item on your to-do list, and then not doing it, is the same as not putting it on the list in the first place. In a way, it’s worse, because it creates the illusion of progress, while simultaneously reminding you daily of how you’re falling short.

So how to reform the process? I love Getting Things Done author David Allen’s idea of creating a "Someday/Maybe" list where you park anything that should or could happen, but that you’re not yet willing to commit to. Reaching out to a potential business prospect—which you know full well you will not do in between the seven meetings you have scheduled tomorrow—can go on this list. So can cleaning out the garage. While we’re in the realm of fantasy, why not?

Then you can create a daily to-do list that contains an element currently missing from most literature in this genre: Honesty.

Honesty requires making a very limited to-do list. All that should go on it are things that really will happen tomorrow, with time slots allocated to them.

The point is to turn the to-do list into a list of things that actually get done. Yes, it may feel strange to create a to-do list that includes attending five previously scheduled meetings, checking your favorite websites (like this one!), and grabbing lunch at the Chipotle three blocks away, but that’s a to-do list that can actually happen. At the end of the day, you can truly say that you did everything you intended to do. You’ll feel like a rock star! Do this enough days in a row, and a funny thing will happen. Your to-do list will no longer seem like a foreign document describing an alternate universe. It will feel like a contract with yourself.

When that magic happens, you can slowly—very slowly—start adding in a high-value task or two per day that you really do want to do. On Monday, you can attend four meetings, check your email, read your favorite websites, turn in the report that was due, and call that intriguing person you met at a conference three weeks ago. On Tuesday you can attend your meetings, check your email, read your favorite websites, do whatever has to get done Tuesday, and start working on the talk you’ll give at a networking event in two weeks.

Be sure to pace yourself. As soon as the to-do list becomes optional again, as soon as it starts including things you aren’t going to push yourself to complete, the system of trust will break down. It is better to aim to do one important thing and get it done than to put 10 items on your to-do list, and complete six that weren’t that important to begin with. Doing one important thing a day doesn’t sound like much, but that’s five a week, or 20 a month. Over time that starts to add up.

How many items do you put on your daily to-do list?

[Image: Flickr user Wayne Wilkinson]

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  • Julie Gray

    Love this Laura! Honesty is required not only about what they intend to do but also about how much actual time you have available to get things done. And of course honesty about how long things actually take. This is when my to-do list actually become a true tool for me - no app required! :)

  • Debbie R Williams

    Great encouragement! I always tell my clients to put something fun or a non-brainer on their daily task list so they can cross it off immediately. it gives them such a thrill to konw that they accomplished a few things with little effort. Taking a coffee break or having a small bite of chocolate is on my list every day. I definitely can get that done!

  • elliot_mist

    Great article! I use a android nexus 4. Any suggestions on a simple to do list app that will sync across all my devices?

  • Guest

    Hey Elliot! Wunderlist is an easy to use simple to-do list app available on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, online, and even as a Chrome Packaged App.