The Easiest Mistake To Make With Your To-Do List

Not all tasks are created equal: here's how to structure your to-do list to match what you can actually get done.

If you've fatigued your brain from decision overload, it won't function very well for complex tasks. And if you only have 15 minutes before your next appointment, diving into a big project will only make you late.

So why don't our to-do lists reflect these facts?

"Not all tasks are created equal," productivityist Mike Vardy argues at 99u. "As our workdays become increasingly complicated, we need efficient ways to focus on the things that matter."

What this requires, he continues, is organizing our to-dos by context—so that we can match our tasks to the resources we have availability and the priority by which we need to get them done.

Organizing by energy

The thing about our minds is that they only have so many resources: productivity guru Tim Ferriss reminds us to not misspend our neurotransmitters, while psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that we have about 150 billion bits of attention to use in a given lifetime.

At a more daily level, our energy levels go in peaks and valleys—with research pointing toward 90-minute cycles of maximal and minimal output, while our discernment gets worse given more decisions we make.

So rather than struggling with a highly complex task when you're exhausted, match your energy to what needs to get done. You can start with three levels:

  • High-energy: lots of mental energy, like if you're first outlining or wire-framing a project
  • Normal energy: a moderate amount, like if you're executing on pre-existing, already streamlined process
  • Low energy: the easy stuff, like riffling through your inbox (though this shouldn't be mistaken for rest)

It's about time

Organizing your list by time of day is useful if you need to demarcate your days between primary and side hustles.

Let's say your company thrives on side projects, like production company B-Reel, who has turned side projects into products like mind-controled remote controlled cars and weekend getaway websites. Assigning such projects to only the early afternoon or the last hour of work allows you to get into your cave—and get the exploratory work done.

It's about priority

David Allen, the dude behind the Getting Things Done system of productivity, says that priority is the most important part of doing your work well. Dwight Eisenhower knew this, to the point that his method for prioritizing tasks became known as the Eisenhower Method.

Both Eisenhower and business guru Dr. Stephen Covey are credited with the idea of breaking your to-do in four categories:

  1. Urgent and important: things you have to do immediately and are crucial to your goals, like solving major crises.
  2. Urgent and not important: things that you have to immediately but don't further your goals, like putting out minor fires.
  3. Not urgent, but important: things that are really crucial to your goals, but don't need to be immediately tackled. Often long-term projects like writing a book—which are oh so easy to procrastinate on.
  4. Not urgent and not important: Distractions that are able to be ignored or cancelled without major consequences. Other people might want you do them, but they don't really further your goals—so we need to learn to protect our time from them.

Hat tip: 99u

[Size Order: Vvoe via Shutterstock]

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  • Stacey Hall

    While I agree with everything that is shared here and actually practice all of it, I also feel that an important element is missing. Without first identifying our ultimate Be-All, End-All Goal for our lives, it is virtually impossible to know what tasks are actually a priority to accomplish. We each have many smaller goals, which lead to our Be-All, End-All Goal. Organizing the goals according in priority order then makes it much easier to prioritize our daily tasks. And, in regard to energy, I have found that we all can generate energy that is required for each task we intend to long as we know that the task is moving us forward towards our greatest goal. More at

  • David Rawson

    I can speak to the value of creating an energy level context for tasks - in two respects. First (and most obviously), the context streamlines the process of choosing what to do next, by having the question "how charged up do I need to be for this?" answered in advance. Secondly, it forces me to be honest with myself about the energy I have to bring to a task: which prevents that "grinding" experience of trying to push through complex tasks with insufficient fuel and make me more likely to my best work at the best time. The other interesting side benefit of this has been that when confronting a task which is important but daunting in terms of the energy required, it promotes thinking about other, lower level, tasks that could equally move the project forward, which has helped me progress stuff more effectively overall.