A to-do list can be a helpful tool for running your day, but it can also be a place where tasks go to linger and die. If you end the day with things undone or if you keep carrying tasks forward to the next day or week, you need a to-do list makeover—a reality check on how you spend your time, as well as your expectations.
Get clear on what’s important
Most people walk around not knowing their priorities, says Romi Neustadt, author of You Can Have It All, Just Not At The Same Damn Time. “You have to start there before you get to your to-do list,” she says. “Our priorities are the things that are most important to us right now—present tense. Not serving them is nonnegotiable.”
Neustadt says we really only have the bandwidth to have two or three priorities. “Otherwise we’re not living authentically, and are scattered and unfulfilled, filling time with stuff that doesn’t matter to us.”
Once you know your priorities, everything on your to-do list should serve them. “What’s incredibly important is to listen for the ‘shoulds,’ whether you’re saying them out loud or in your head,” she says. “People are ‘shoulding’ all over the place. When you hear or think ‘should,’ you’re not serving your priorities.”
Give tasks a value
Whether you work for yourself or for someone else, consider yourself the CEO of your day. Look at your to-do list and assign every task a metric or value, such as a dollar-per-hour amount that you might have to pay someone else to do it, suggests Racheal Cook, entrepreneurship strategy coach.
“By assigning dollar-per-hour values to specific tasks, this ensures you utilize your resources correctly,” she says. “Score tasks from $10 per hour for administrative tasks all the way up to $10,000 per hour for high-level strategy and sales-related tasks. This approach gives instant clarity into how you are investing your time into your business.”
Measure a task’s urgency
Cook likes to use the Eisenhower Matrix to break down a master to-do list into four sections: “urgent and important,” “not urgent but important,” “urgent and not important, and “not important and not urgent.”
Tasks that are urgent and important should be done today. Those that are important but not urgent should be scheduled for later. If a task is urgent but not important, it should be delegated to someone else. And a task that’s not important and not urgent should be eliminated.
“Using the Eisenhower Matrix, you want to spend most of your time on tasks that are important but not yet urgent—in the $1,000 to $10,000 range using the CEO Scorecard,” she says. “This is how you get ahead of that to-do list and move . . . forward.”
Put the hard stuff first
It’s human tendency to put easy tasks at the top of the to-do list because it feels good to strike something off, says Neustadt. “The reality is that the hard stuff is what moves the needle and impacts our life,” she says. “The hard stuff is when you’re actually doing things that serve your priorities.”
While doing easy things can give you a sign of accomplishment, they may also be a form of procrastination, says Neustadt. “When you do the easy stuff and have no time for the hard things, you let fear win,” she says. “Putting other stuff at the top of to-do list is a fluff excuse to not to get to hard stuff.”
Don’t let your to-do list morph into a blob list, cautions Paul Rulkens, president of Agrippa Consulting International. “A blob is a vague, undefined, and unclear action,” he says. “Any action on your to-do-list must therefore have a very specific outcome.”
In addition to defining the action, also assign a specific time frame for each task, says Dr. A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College. “You must consider how important each task is and what time frame you have to complete that task,” she says. “Consider grouping similar tasks together.”
If a task is large, Marsden recommends breaking it down into sections or phases to be completed over the course of a few days.
Do a to-do list sprint
The hardest part of tackling your to-do list can be actually getting started. Career coach Caroline Ouwerkerk of Caroline Ouwerkerk Consulting suggests working in “sprints” to see how much you can get done in 60 minutes.
“Another way of doing this is to set a timer for 15 minutes—and commit to not checking your phone or giving in to distractions until the timer goes off,” she says. “Often that’s all it takes to get over your initial resistance and get into a good work rhythm.”
If your phone is too much of a distraction, Ouwerkerk recommends using the Forest app, where you can “plant” virtual trees that “grow” if you don’t engage with your phone for a certain length of time. “After a while, you’ll become obsessed with growing your virtual garden full of different varieties of trees, flowers, and bushes—and get your to-do list done in the process,” she says.