To do lists are magic. I live by them and wouldn’t know what to do with myself without them!
Experts say the second you write something down, you’re more likely to actually make it happen than if you rely on your (sometimes faulty) memory (my memory is pretty shotty sometimes; I need some herbs!).
The bottom line is lists work. I think we all know that inherently. Books have been written about the power of lists… but not all lists are created equally!
Though I’m no expert, I thought I’d share my experience and discuss 7 biggest mistakes people make with to do lists and how to avoid them.
Mistake Number 1: Thinking There’s One “Right” System
There are all types of planners, calendars, software programs, and mobile apps that have been created to helps us get a handle on our ever-expanding to do lists.
Some of these applications have tons and tons of features. The problem is that while it can be really fun to color-code your tasks, set up e-mail reminders for the next sixteen years, or invest a month’s worth of groceries in a new planner, there’s no guarantee that what works for one person or your best friend is going to work for you.
To do list or task-management systems come in all shapes and sizes. So if you don’t pick a system that’s in line with your personality and your life, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
The solution: Match your system to your preferences and personality. Not everyone needs a computerized system capable of launching the next space shuttle and not everyone is comfortable with a pen-and-paper format. Find something that works for you and stick with it – even if “everyone else” is moving on to something shiny and new.
After all the testing I’ve done with systems, I’ve finally settled on ToodleDo (cute name eh?). It’s a free online task management system (paper tracking hasn’t worked well for me since Franklin Covey binders were all the rage back in the day; I had all types and colors too!)
Mistake Number 2: Putting Too Many Things on Your List
When it comes to lists, you may think that the more, the merrier. Not so! In fact, after about 10 items, your list starts to decrease in productivity. The vast number of to dos actually discourages you, and you fall into the old, “I’m never going to get it all done, so why bother?” mindset.
The solution: Limit the number of items on your list. Productivity experts and get-it-done folks recommend keeping the number of items on your list to about six.
Like me, you may be asking, “How in the heck will I ever cut my list of items to only six? I can fill up three pages with things to do!” The key is to filter it down to the most important items to be accomplished in the next 24 hours. Remember, if you get it all done, you can always add more items! If needed, move the items that aren’t needed anytime soon to another list or just prioritize them low on the list so they are not in your main view. We don’t need anything taking us away from the top items!
Mistake Number 3: Not Prioritizing Your Tasks
This is a mistake I had. I would add items to my list but stop there. Fail! So even if you successfully get into the habit of limiting yourself to less than 10 items in your daily to do list, you’re probably going to run into some obstacles along the way.
Human nature being what it is, it’s common to start with the easy stuff and avoid what we don’t really want to do. This tendency can be especially true if you’re self-employed and setting your own goals and job responsibilities (funny how that works!).
Solution? The way to combat this bad habit is to prioritize your list. Not all items on your list are going to be created equal, and one critical step to getting the most out of your list is to rank the items you’re aiming to complete so you’ll know what needs to be done first, second, and so on.
Mistake Number 4: Listing Projects Instead of Tasks
One of the biggest mistakes people make with their to do list is writing down goals or projects instead of tasks. To do lists are only useful as a daily guide if they include things you can actually accomplish in a given day. That’s why items like “lose 10 lbs,” “find a new job,” and “double my income” are not useful – or do-able. They are goals, and while it’s great to have goals and to even make lists of them, they should not appear on your daily to do list.
Solution? Instead, your list should consist of tasks – items that you can accomplish TODAY, given today’s time, resources, and skills.
Mistake Number 5: Being Productive Instead of Effective
It’s easy to work through a list of items on your list, reach the end of the day, and realize that while you got a lot of things DONE, you didn’t do much to push yourself towards your overall goals. Sure, you were BUSY, but were you effective?
This tends to happen because by some law of the universe, the things that will take you the farthest are rarely the “fun” things or “easy” things. It’s fun to shop for a new desk chair, reading reviews, looking for the best price, and blowing a whole morning in the process. You might even be able to fool yourself into thinking you’re working (after all, the chair is for your office!). But at the end of the day – or week, or month – whether or not you have a new desk chair has very little bearing on your success.
There is a place for the “busy” work of work. Sorting paperclips, filing papers, and even shopping for that desk chair can be used as breaks between the larger tasks on your list, or as fill-the-gaps activities when you’re on hold, waiting for a meeting to begin, or winding down from accomplishing a big task.
Solution? Instead, focus on becoming effective. You’ll immediately notice a huge leap forward towards your goals. And then you can order that new desk chair!
Mistake Number 6: Making Only One To Do List
Do you have more than one pair of shoes? Computer program? Cooking utensil? Of course you do. When it comes to your wardrobe, computer, kitchen, or business, one tool just won’t do.
The same goes for your to do list. Instead of having one super-duper-long, super-scattered list, it’s much more powerful to have several lists that you refer to for different reasons. Here’s a list (haha!) of the types you might find useful:
- Daily to do list. This is the worker bee of your lists. It covers the top tasks you aim to complete each day, and is ranked in order of priority.
- Project lists. If you have ongoing personal or business projects, project lists and timelines are invaluable. You can sketch out the entire project from start to finish and move the next item on the list to your daily list. (Note: Some people prefer mind maps or calendar-type schedules instead of straight lists for these types of items.)
- Monthly and/or Annual goals list. On an periodic basis, take time to review your long-term goals in every area of your life. This will drive your priorities and daily to dos.
- Personal goals list. While it isn’t necessary, you may want to separate your personal goals (health, relationship, spirituality, etc.) from your business goals and keep track of those objectives on a separate list.
- “Bucket” list. “Bucket” lists have become all the rage, since the movie by the same name with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson hit the screens a few years back. Keeping a running list of lifetime goals can be a fun and inspirational way to channel your energy.
The number and kind of lists you keep current is entirely a personal preference. The advantage of having more than one list is that you can quickly get a snapshot of where you are on any given project or area of your life. The downside is, of course, that it takes time to manage and review these various lists so don’t go overboard.
Mistake Number 7: Not Making Your List Beforehand
Just as you can’t win a race if you don’t know where you’re headed and how you’re going to get there, you can’t get the most from your day if you’re spending the first hour of your morning – often people’s most productive time – just figuring out how to get started. That’s where your to do list comes in.
Making your to do list the night before is a critical success skill. Sitting down for fifteen minutes to plan out the next day before you turn the page on the calendar increases your effectiveness for several reasons:
- Your unconscious mind starts working on the things you need to do before you even wake up in the morning. Don’t be surprised if you open your eyes with a great idea, plan, or scheme for accomplishing one of the items on your list. You’ll soon start expecting this to happen! Your brain keeps working even when your eyes are closed.
- You can hit the ground running, without distractions. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s really easy to get pulled off track. You putz around, checking email, returning your mother-in-law’s call, and checking the lunch menu in the cafeteria. Before you know it, half the day is gone and you haven’t done anything!
- It keeps you focused. You won’t get sidetracked by the unimportant that hits your inbox or voicemail because you already know where you’re headed.
As you can see, to do lists are powerful tools when used correctly. While there are no absolute rights or wrongs, there are some proven strategies such as those mentioned here, that will help you tame your to do list and make it a strong asset in accomplishing your personal and business goals.
What do you use to manage your to do lists? Share your thoughts below!