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Expert Advice On How To Build The Ultimate To-Do List

A whopping 89% of people say they don’t accomplish their daily tasks, so we asked experts how to create a to-do list that you can finish.

Expert Advice On How To Build The Ultimate To-Do List
[Photo: Flickr user Ben Cumming]

If you feel like you never manage to check everything off of your to-do list, you’re not alone. Only 11% of professionals around the world accomplish all the tasks they’d planned to do on an average workday, according to a LinkedIn survey.

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Writing down your goals makes you more likely to achieve them, but many of us struggle with a never-ending to-do list: pick up the dry cleaning, finish that presentation, call the dentist, book a flight, order a wedding present . . .

Tracy McCubbin, professional organizer and owner of the Los Angeles-based dClutterfly, says one reason we get frustrated with to-do lists is that we expect to complete everything on them. “It’s something living and breathing as opposed to ‘I’ve checked everything off and I’m done for the rest of my life,'” she explains. In addition to making peace with their unending nature, here are other strategies for taming your to do-list.

Get Real About Priorities

Cramming too many things on our to do list can feel overwhelming, so Jason Womack, executive coach and author of Your Best Just Got Better, suggests sticking to the “verbs that make you money and the verbs that make you happy.” Many people fall into the trap of thinking they’re really busy but not accomplishing much, Womack says, so he asks clients what two to five verbs will help them get promoted this year.

In Womack’s case, he makes money by presenting and publishing, so he focuses on verbs like writing, calling and emailing to secure those opportunities, and bringing in those revenue streams enables Womack and his wife Jodi to take off one full month per year, which aids in the happiness department.

To help his clients figure out what tasks are important to focus on, he asks, “Why are you doing that task?” and “If you’re doing that task 36 months from now, do you think you’ll be any happier or making any more money?”

“When I ask those two questions after I’ve spent the time, met with my own coaches and mentors, and really committed to my own why, the things that land on my “lists” are better,” he says.

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Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists To Be More Productive, Successful And Less Stressed, recommends using a single sticky note per day to avoid the temptation of piling on more and more tasks. “I believe in very short lists that are targeted and will have just a few items on them,” she says. “What are the five things that need to happen today? It forces you to say, ‘That’s not that important, but this is.'”

Instead of cramming extra tasks on to your list, consider delegating grocery shopping or cleaning to someone else, and cut yourself some slack if you don’t have time to make pasta from scratch. “If those things keep popping up that you’re not getting to, those items maybe need to go on a someday list,” Rizzo says. You can revisit your someday list at a later date, but don’t let those tasks distract you from more immediate tasks. Ordering your list by deadline (with the most pressing items first) also helps to set priorities.

Find What Works For You

As far as formats go, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some people enjoy the physical act of handwriting their to-do list. Others want the ability to sync a digital to-do list on multiple devices and access it anywhere. Rizzo likes to break down her lists into separate categories (work, home, travel, etc.) rather than keeping one marathon list, while McCubbin keeps one master list in a notebook she carries in her purse. “I do better when everything’s in one place as opposed to having a compartmentalized life,” McCubbin says.

Ditch Old or Duplicate To Do Lists

Once you’ve completed a task, give yourself a pat on the back by crossing it off your list. “I have been known to write things on the list that were not originally there, so I can cross them off and feel that sense of accomplishment,” Rizzo says.

If you want to keep track of what you’ve accomplished, an app called iDoneThis can create a digital digest for you. But don’t let old to-do lists clutter your desk and gather dust. McCubbin says many of her clients replicate their to-do lists on multiple scraps of paper or legal pads all over the house. “People argue against me, but I’m finding lists from five years ago,” she says.

Of course, the tasks you accomplish matter more than the list itself. “It’s not about making a list, it’s about creating the momentum to get your most important things done,” Womack says, “lining up things in order to stay focused and get you to the next milestone.” Use the approach gets you to those milestones–whether it’s a Post-it note, an Evernote file, or a legal pad.

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Susan Johnston has covered personal finance and business for publications including the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, and USNews.com.