Actually Get Things Done: Creating a Reasonable To-Do List


It’s far too easy to wind up with a to-do list that seems to go on forever. Just as you finish one task, you think of three more that need to get done. I don’t know too many people who successfully complete every single item they would like to get done, especially if you look at their to-do lists over time.

If you want to accomplish more of the tasks on your to-do list, you have to create a reasonable list — one that’s actually in line with what is practical to handle. (See also: The Secret to Time Management and Work-Life Balance)

Who’s Putting Tasks on Your To-Do List?

The first question you have to address is exactly who is allowed to add to your to-do list. Most of us may be in charge of writing out our own lists, but anyone able to send us a quick email can add to our lists. All it takes is a "could you please do this?" and our lists get that much longer.

It is OK to say no to most people, especially if your to-do list is getting out of hand. An employer may not be easy to deny, but if your boss is being unreasonable about what you can accomplish in a short period of time, it’s worth pointing out to that person you can’t actually accomplish everything on your list in a timely manner.

Your significant other may fall into a similar category as your boss. You can’t just tell a spouse or partner that you’re not going to do something, at least without explaining why. You may need to discuss tasks as they come up. Everyone else, though, it’s worth saying no or that you’ll have to see — your own tasks should be a priority.

Prioritization Makes the Difference

Within your to-do list, you need to prioritize what must be accomplished. There are things you have to do today and things that you can put off indefinitely. In general, it’s best to focus on what you must accomplish today. But if you only ever do what must be handled today, those tasks without deadlines won’t actually be accomplished — you may get to a few things with deadlines this week or next ahead of time, but that’s it. In order to prioritize effectively, you need to set deadlines for every task, and they must be real deadlines. If you just make up a deadline for a given task, the odds of it being completed are incredibly slim.

But if you tie a task to an external deadline, such as knowing that you need to clean out the guest room before your mother’s next visit, the odds of it actually getting done go up significantly.

Break Down Big Tasks Into Little Ones

To any extent possible, you want to break down tasks into the smallest concrete steps you can assign to yourself. We tend to look at something big, like "paint the house," and put it off as long as possible because there are so many elements to crossing a task like that off of our to-do list. But if we can break it down into steps like buying paint and taping off electrical sockets, we can tell ourselves that we only need to work for a few minutes to accomplish each little task.

We get the added bonus of being able to cross more items off of our lists. That feeling of knowing that we’ve finished tasks is crucial. It’s the main thing that keeps us moving down that list. If we can build up momentum, the whole list is easier to handle.

Don’t Be Afraid to Drop Tasks

At the end of the day, there’s no punishment for not completing many of the tasks that wind up on our to-do lists. So if something hasn’t gotten done and you don’t see a clear problem with not doing it, the best way to keep your to-do list under control is to drop that task. Take the time to think about the consequences of actually not doing some of your tasks, and you may find that many of them are things you’d like to do, rather than need to do.

If there’s a task that is important to you but that doesn’t absolutely need to be done — that you can’t tie to a deadline and that there’s no consequence for not doing it — take it off your to-do list. Add it to a separate list that you can look at and work on when there’s room on your to-do list. That way, you’re not cluttering up your main list and not getting depressed every time you have to put off a particular task.

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Guest's picture

Thanks Thursday! Particularly interested in these tips just now - with a new baby on the way I can vouch that a deadline is a great way to get things done. We've just got a numberplate outside the front door after SEVEN years of meaning too - and it's all because of baby!

Guest's picture

Great article! Its amazing how powerful breaking tasks down can be for reducing anxiety about upcoming projects.

Guest's picture

These tips can be applied to almost everything in life; whether they are work related, chores, weight loss, fitness, or just a never ending pile of "better late than never" work (as I like to call it). Prioritizing, and then writing down the steps you will take, or simply what you will do first, second, third, etc. will really allow you to stay on track and cross things off both mentally and physically. Also, voicing out loud what you plan to do will give you that extra push of making sure you get to something that you've been meaning to do.

Guest's picture

My biggest "win" when it came to "to do" lists comes from a page from GTD (getting things done)

Best thing ever was changing the to do list into multiple lists for different formats - at desk, on the phone, errands, etc. each get their own to do list.

This reduces the back and forth and thinking through the to do lists, and makes it easier to bunch each task together....

Guest's picture

Excellent article, thank you! This will help me actually get to clean out that dreaded garage!

Guest's picture

Thanks setting priorities is a thing I often forget to do. I just put them down as they pop in my head. Sometimes it causes me to spend energy on unimportant tasks, and running out of time.

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