3 Strategies for Creating a To-Do List That Almost Does Itself

3 Strategies for Creating a To-Do List That Almost Does Itself
Image credit: Michael Coghlan | Flickr
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Let's face it: getting things done is hard. Even when you have a solid "to-do" list.

The main problem with traditional "to-do" lists is that they lack prioritization. Think about how a trip to the store goes with your typical grocery list.

You get in the store, start rolling down the aisles and look for the items. No particular order, really. It’s more like “check the list…check the aisle…check the list…check the aisle” until you find everything. You don’t really feel like it matters which aisle you start in, or what order you pick things up in. I's easy to end up missing things, or going up and down the aisles repeatedly.

Clearly, this model is inefficient. So, why do we treat our important daily tasks like this? Here are three steps you can take you make your "to-do" lists so efficient that they practically do themselves. (If your list is already overflowing, you can always just grab the "cheatsheet" for this article. It summarizes all the main points for you.)

1: Stop treating your "to-do's" like a grocery list.

Yesterday, I did a brain dump into my notebook and these were the objectives I came up with for the day:

  1. Follow up with magazine editors.
  2. Client meeting.
  3. Add widget to website.
  4. Send emails.
  5. Write blog post.
  6. Upload videos to YouTube.
  7. Edit articles.

It’s tempting to write this list down and immediately start hacking away at it ,like a shopping list. But that’s not the smartest way. If I look at it, I can see that some items are time sensitive, some are more mentally taxing, others are relatively unimportant.

So let's rearrange that same list according to our new priorities.

The new list might look like:

  1. Client meeting.
  2. Upload videos to YouTube.
  3. Edit articles.
  4. Write blog post.
  5. Follow up with magazine editors.
  6. Send emails.
  7. Add widget.

Notice now that the two things directly related to making income are now prioritized first, followed by the most intellectually challenging items, followed by the more rote tasks. This new list is set up so that even if I only finish HALF of the items, the most important things are taken care of.

Which brings up a good point. What happens to your list if you don’t finish all the items on a given day?

Related: To-Do Lists Not Working? Try This Time-Management Alternative

2. Rollover, delegate or drop it.

if you’re even remotely busy (like we all are) there’s a 99 percent chance you’re not going to finish everything you listed, even if you organized the list well.

What happens to the items you don’t get to for the day? You have three options for incomplete tasks:

Rollover: If you didn’t finish something yesterday, just roll it over into tomorrow’s list, right? Sometimes this is ok, but you have to be careful. If you rollover too many “non-critical” items for too many days in a row, you’ll end up with a list of 73 things like “refill toilet paper roller.” Not efficient.

Try to rollover one to two items per day, max.

Delegate: Some things still need to get done but, after prioritizing your list and trying to roll them over for a day or two, you realize that you just can’t be the one who does them. When this is the case, time to delegate.

This happened to me when I realized that I had a dozen little website issues that needed fixing, and I just couldn’t get to them.

They were important enough to write down, but not important enough to actually work on compared to everything else. That’s when I hired someone to help me manage the site. Now, getting something on Rich20Something is as simple as sending a quick email. More importantly, my "to-do" list is now shorter.

Drop it. This is my secret weapon. If you’ve tried rolling it over and you can’t get to it…and delegation isn’t a good option…. Just drop it.

Say what??! Yep — just forget about it. The key here is getting good enough to determine which items are unnecessary before even adding them to the list.

Related: Why Your 'To Do' List Is Failing You

3. Get ruthless. 

Simple to-do lists are powerful. Long to-do lists are disempowering.

I want you to get super specific about what needs to get done for the day, even after you’ve prioritized your list. Make your priorities fight each other. Then chop that list down to three priorities for the day. Just three.

Why? The reasons are both pragmatic and psychological.

Think about it this way. Whether you accomplish three out of seven things of the day, or three out of three, you’re still completing the SAME amount of work but one list leaves you feeling empty and dissatisfied, while the other leaves you confident and happy with your daily progress.

Related: The Not-to-Do List -- 7 Habits That Are Sabotaging Your Productivity and Happiness