Master the to-do-list

A to-do list can be incredibly helpful and productive if used properly. Here are several strategies for getting the most out of your to-do list. Feel free to use it to make your to-do list more effective. These applicable techniques are also great if you’re starting to use a to-do list in a more structured way.

1. Do I put in the work to get the results?

Thinking about planning something and taking action on your ideas are two very different things. Without being in action, nothing will materialize and you won’t be any closer to what you’re trying to accomplish. A lot of people feel satisfied and warm and fuzzy inside through the process of creating lists. Sometimes they are ineffective though because people don’t follow through on what they say they will do. Without action, a to-do list can actually be a frustrating and hollow activity. When there isn’t follow through and there’s no experience of completion. Don’t be one of those people! If you find your to-do list to be ineffective, you may want to take an honest look at your actions.

What to consider:

  • Do I take real actions on the items I put on my to-do list every day?
  • Am I doing what I said I would do, on time and reliably?
  • Do I finish things to the extent I said I would do them?
  • Will I close the loop on tasks by communicating with people when they are complete?

2. Do I actually “need” to do this particular task?

Are you treating your to-do list as your guide to getting what you want? This could be at work, in your life, and in your relationships. Time is the one thing you can’t get back. If it’s not important and essential then why would to you spend your time on it? Your to-do list is a plan for how you want to spend your time. You get to say if it’s time well spent or not. 

Some people haphazardly add things to a to-do list without an attempt to be efficient and effective. You’ll always end up with loose and ineffective results. You can free up your time and work way more effectively by cutting things out. These are items that aren’t important and don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Be honest, and ask yourself, what is it that you’re really out to accomplish? Is it truly relevant and is what you’re putting on your list, stuff you absolutely “need to do”?

Will, what I put on my to-do list move the needle on the results I’m out to achieve? If you keep moving items to your next to-do list, you might find that they aren’t that important. The reality is that a portion of the items people might put on their to-do list is actually trivial. They are likely distractions from the real work that needs to be done. What is the end result you’re trying to accomplish as the end goal? 

It may be fun and exciting to take certain actions. Without looking at the essentials, you may add tasks that deviate from the important work that needs to be done. Will those actions contribute to the completion of your project or goals? Ask friends or colleagues if they think your list is a productive use of time. It can be helpful often times to have this outside perspective. You have an opportunity to leapfrog through tasks and objectives by trimming the inefficiencies. Going for what really matters will have a true, measurable impact.

What to consider:

  • Will this task make an impact and result in what I want as the end goal?
  • Is what I’m putting on my to-do list really important and will it cause results?
  • What am I really trying to accomplish here?
  • Am I being honest with myself about whether these are things I really need to do?
  • Have I asked other people what might make my list more effective to get their perspective?

3. Am I keeping my to-do list updated?

Actually using your to-do list means constantly keeping an eye on it. It means using it as your action plan for progress. How you treat your to-do list and whether you’re actively using it will directly determine what actions you take. It will also play a key role in how much you’re able to achieve. You could rewrite your list physically on a sheet of paper daily if you want to clean it up. You can also use software to keep it updated every day. It’s important to celebrate things by crossing them off as soon as they’re complete. You will want to update tasks that might have changed in your list. As soon as you realize that something isn’t relevant, you’ll want to take it off the list.

What to consider:

  • Am I crossing things off my to-do list when they are complete?
  • Do I update tasks when I realize there’s something more effective I could be working on?
  • Am I cutting out things as soon as I realize that they might not be essential or contribute?
  • Do treat my to-do list as a sacred space?
  • Am I hinking about it as the commitment of how I will be spending my time?
  • Have I been checking my list regularly and do I see what is next?
  • Am I updating my to-do list daily and as needed?

4. Do I ask for help when I get stuck?

I used to spend a lot of time trying to do things all by myself. It seemed that I was the best person to do everything. Apparently, if I tasked others to do something it wouldn’t get done right or to the level of quality desired. Asking people to do stuff seemed to take longer to explain that for me to to do it myself. My mentality was that working with others might slow things down versus speed them up. I had the assumption that sharing challenges was going to make me look bad. Asking for help and it might make me seem like “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

All of this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s important to reach out, asking for the help of others as you need it. A lot of times someone else can see things that you’re not able to realize. They are coming in with a fresh perspective and an unbiased view. You can ask anyone around you for help. It doesn’t have to be the “perfect” person. Lots of people from all walks of life are able to provide feedback and solutions. If you don’t find their feedback valuable after asking, that’s fine too. At least you can move on to get an additional perspective.

What to consider:

  • Am I asking others for help?
  • Do I share what’s really going on with others and the true challenges?
  • Am I trying to do everything by myself?
  • Is my approach and focus on finding a solution?
  • Do I have someone in my network who can help to solve a particular challenge I’m stuck on?

5. Can I delegate things?

Delegation is important as you take on more responsibility. You’ll undoubtedly hit a glass ceiling if you try to do everything yourself. We only have so much energy and time in the day. Sooner or later, you’ll have to figure out how to be most effective with the resources you have. You’ll want to expand your network and resources so you can get more done and scale. You can pay someone for example or ask a friend to help with something. 

It might make sense to ask someone for help. You may know someone who can aid you with a task that you have the ability to get done quickly. Maybe you’re an expert in that specific area. In turn, they could help you accomplish something in a fraction of the time it might have taken you. This is because they might be an expert in their respective area. This could be in the area of photography, marketing, writing copy, creating a logo, making presentations, etc. Regardless of how you delegate tasks, it’s important to continually ask yourself and think. Am I the right person to do this task? Is there someone out there who could get this done more swiftly?

What to consider:

  • Is there someone I can reach out to for a hand?
  • Can I hire someone to help?
  • Could I buy people pizza and create a fun group activity to get help on something?
  • Is there a way I can expand my network to find people who can help out?
  • Am I letting go of my pride and ego and asking for help as needed?

6. What’s in the way?

We’ve all missed deadlines in the past. We might have said we would do something and then ended up not doing it or completely forgetting about it. How can you avoid missing your deadlines? Are you delivering things as you said you would do them? Do you deliver things to the extent and quality you committed to? Your word is your reputation and your reputation is everything. How can you make sure you keep your word and uphold your reputation? 

You may want to look at what caused you to forget something. Did you miss a deadline or not do it to the level you promised? There will be recurring things that often cause you to miss a deadline. This also applies to not get your to-do list completed. These things are usually the same types of bottlenecks and happen every time. This might be that you’re always late for a meeting or you forget to add things to your calendar, etc. It might mean that you can focus on improving these areas and addressing them. Setting a plan to be early to meetings or getting tasks complete before the deadline is a great objective. These habitual changes will often have a positive effect on many areas of your life.

What to consider:

  • Do I add things to my to-do list and calendar?
  • Am I actually using my to-do list and calendar as a tool?
  • Is it a guide for how I prioritize and how I use my time?
  • Do I tend to be ensconced in any particular task?
  • Am I forgetting to do the other things I said you would do on my list?
  • What do I need to let go of to make sure things keep running on time?
  • Is there a structure I need to have to make sure I get things done?
  • Who can I share my commitments with to have accountability around my to-do list items? Can they share their to-do list items with me to have reciprocal responsibility? Like the buddy system!

7. Do I have motivation to complete tasks?

To get things underway, adjust your mindset. Do you think a to-do list is a tedious set of chores and you are just checking off? It’s up to you whether you perceive it as boring or monotonous. Stop thinking so much about it and get to work! Think about how nice it will be to get things out of the way. Consider how checking off 3 things or 10 things on your to-do list today will allow you to move on. How can you check things off to be more successful and get your closer to your goals? 

If it’s not fun, think about how you can make it fun. Can you put on music? Will you go buy yourself a nice lunch after you complete a specific set of items on your to-do list? What if you book a vacation after you’ve reached a certain milestone in the year? Which structures and incentives can you put in place to keep things moving along? How can you get to-do list items checked off without making it feel like a set of mandatory chores? It might mean that you just need to put in the time and do the work. Once you get moving, you’ll feel better and have more energy to get through your list.

What to consider:

  • How can I motivate myself to get things done?
  • Am I the type of person who gets responds to a specific type of reward?
  • Could something like listening to music while I’m working make the time go by quicker?
  • Are there other things that help me be more productive?
  • Can I imagine finishing a specific task and use that as motivation?
  • Where am I hitting a roadblock?
  • What’s the best way to keep things moving along?
  • Am I stuck in procrastination or do I lose momentum?

8. Do I prioritize my work?

It’s easy to spend the whole day working on “stuff”, feeling like you’re constantly moving. At the end of the day, you might look back at your to-do list wondering what you accomplished. This is where being assertive about prioritization can be helpful. Without priorities, it’s common to find yourself doing busy work. You end up not seeing results you were hoping for. Becoming an expert at prioritization is a powerful tool. It may mean giving up some things that you “want to do” for the things that will move the needle.

What to consider:

  • Will, what I’m putting on my to-do list contribute to my end goals?
  • What is the key next step I should take?
  • Why is it important and if I spend time on it, will it create measurable results for me?
  • What is the best logical order for me to do items on my list?
  • Will there be impacts for me not doing certain items on a timeline?
  • Do others agree that the items on my to-do list are in good order?

9. Have I committed to deliver?

This means no matter what, you’ll keep your word to get the item checked off your list. You must complete the task on time. There might be things that get in the way. You might feel tired, bored, unhappy, or experiencing a lack of energy. Are you going to choose to give in to those feelings or finish what you started? Without a commitment and dedication to something, your to-do list items will go any which way. 

There won’t be power in your words if you don’t do the things you say. This loss of power and energy will be felt not only by others but also by you. In the case where you will not get something done, are you taking responsibility? Are you reaching out to anyone who will be affected? Will you clear it up and make new plans to deliver the to-do list task?

What to consider:

  • Am I taking my to-do list seriously?
  • Do I actually use it ongoingly?
  • Have I taken a moment to think about how long things will really take and planned them accordingly?
  • Did I make the commitment to deliver things on time publicly?
  • Will friends or colleagues hold me accountable?
  • If I’m not going to deliver something on time – have I told anyone who might be impacted about it and made a new commitment to deliver as soon as I realize there’s a problem?

10. Do I feel overwhelmed?

Get everything out of your head and write out all the stuff that you need to get done. If you don’t, it will keep weighing on you and distract throughout the day. Eventually, you’ll run out of things to put down on the list. A to-do list is something you’ll use throughout your life. The tasks at hand right now for you will eventually be all listed out if you write them down. 

Even if you have a ton of stuff to get done – you’ll get to the end of the list. Eventually, all you can think of will be written down. You’ll then be able to prioritize and roll up your sleeves and get to work. If there are ways to break out tasks further, make sure you do this. If you feel unsure about how to start a task, it often means you need more definition and clarity. It might mean it also needs to be actionable. It’s a good sign that you may need to be more specific. The actions you put on your list are there to help you accomplish your goals.

What to consider:

  • Am I getting everything written down in one place?
  • Do I sort out my to-do list items in terms of the timeline and priority?
  • Am I writing things down as I remember them? This helps minimize repetitive thoughts. Otherwise, these thoughts can take up mental capacity and distract from focus?
  • Can I delegate any of these tasks or hire them out?
  • Is there anyone I can ask for help or get advice from?

11. Am I breaking out each task?

A lot of successful people realize that they can only get a few specific, measurable things done every day. Breaking things down into bite-sized tasks can go a long way. A mistake a lot of people make is to you give yourself big, audacious, unspecific goals. When you put large, generic to-do list items on your list, it’s hard to think about where to take action. Big goals are awesome and this is by no means, to say that you shouldn’t take on ambitious objectives. By all means, you should. It just means that your plan might be a little fuzzy in the clarity of the list. Make sure you give yourself a place to start. If your goal is to launch a website, for example, your list could look like the following example… 


1 : Find an available domain name and purchase it (by Mon)
2 : Develop sitemap for structure (by Tues)
3: Create copy text for the home page (by Tues)
4 : Create copy text for the about page (by Tues)
5 : Create copy text for the contact page (by Tues)
6 : Create a basic site design with Adam (by Wed)
6 : Ask Sarah for feedback on the design (by Thurs)
7 : Book photographer for headshot imagery (by Friday) 

And the list might go on. These are specific action items that you can check off. They will get you towards your goal of launching your website. Instead of saying “Launch website” on your to-do list, you can break it out. This way you can keep chipping away at tasks until before you know it, your site will be ready for launch!

What to consider:

  • Am I making my to-do list something that I can chip away at?
  • Are my tasks clear and can I take action on them?
  • Can I break down my tasks any further?
  • Are there things I might need other people to help with?
  • Can I order the tasks relative to their timeline?

12. Am I giving myself a timeline?

It’s easy to let things run on and on. If you don’t give yourself a timeline for accomplishing tasks, the time you spend on things will just keep going. There’s an impact to not delivering things when you say you will. You will spend extra time you don’t need to on something that probably isn’t important. You’ll likely feel a little less energy and power in how you accomplish what you set out to do. There’s a phrase that goes how you do anything, is how you do everything. This definitely applies to your commitments. 

It’s helpful to know by when you’ll have something done. This is so your to-do items don’t keep creeping into the next hour, day, week or month. You want to have intention in getting things complete. It’s a fact that you won’t be doing yourself any favors by letting things go unchecked time-wise. To have more energy and power – build the habit of making sure things are complete in a specific timeframe. If you’re not currently good at time management, you may need to work that muscle and it’s ok. Everyone has to start somewhere. Scheduling of projects and reliably delivering things on time is an art form. Practice will improve over time with experience.

What to consider:

  • When am I saying I will get this done by?
  • Is there someone I can share it with so I have accountability?
  • If I need help, who do I need to contact? Can I let them know now so I’m not asking them last minute?
  • Do I need to book a meeting or purchase something in advance to keep things running on time?
  • Am I accounting for all the time it will take? The time it will take me to drive to the store to buy something? Will it take extra time to walk and meet someone?

This should give you a sense of ways to make your to-do list work for you. Like most things, practice makes perfect and you’ll get better and better at using a to-do list with experience. They are an incredibly powerful tool for productivity and they work when you do. I’m confident that they can help you be incredibly efficient in your day-to-day life. Think of your to-do list as an active, living tool that is constantly changing to fit your needs. It’s a plan for how you’ll spend your time and a guide and structure for your actions. A to-do list will help you spend your time in action and not be wondering what’s next to work on throughout the day. Your results come from your actions and your daily to-do list will help you stay in motion and be effective and impactful with your time.

– Matt Grigsby

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