How to Make Friends With Your To-Do List

83 items….

83 items on my to-do list.

I sat looking at the two pages crammed so tightly with things I had to do it was overwhelming. It was a well organized to-do list with items categorized into work, home, church, school, and other roles in my life. Even then, with it broken out into multiple categories it was just enormous. There was no way to get everything done in time.

The to-do list, once a trusted tool, had become my enemy. Instead of productivity, my list now produced only anxiety.

Have you ever felt this way? Have you looked at all the things that needed to get done and wanted to throw your hands up in the air in exasperation?

Thankfully, there is a solution that brings the joy back into accomplishing the important tasks in your life.

Making the to-do list your friend again

I used to write a to-do list and get excited about checking off those boxes. That was in a simpler time with fewer roles and responsibilities.

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The 83 items on my recent list only brought a feeling of never-ending drudgery. The to-do wasn’t helping my day… until I figured out how to make friends with it again.

Let’s take a look at a few of the items my list consisted of. My 83 items looked something like this:

  • Write recent events blog article
  • Create new social media account
  • Redesign the homepage
  • Create new website flows
  • Hire Social Media Manager
  • Call Plumber about getting soft water for house
  • Install Ecobee smart thermostat
  • Get furnace fixed
  • Create year end report for investors
  • Touch base with top clients
  • Organize Hack-A-Thon
  • Confirm meeting with Tim
  • Call Insurance company about covering surgery
  • Book travel for upcoming trip
  • Create time sensitive promotions
  • Set meeting with Alex
  • Have Pest control come to the house
  • Clean bedroom and bathroom
  • Get oil changed
  • Email team about coming priorities
  • etc…

Instead of letting this beast get out of control, here’s a simple way to turn it back into your friend.

The 4-Part To-Do List

The system consists of these 4 parts:

  1. Must Do
  2. Hope To Do
  3. To Delegate
  4. To Don’t

These can be put into four columns like so:

1. Prioritize

Pick the top three or four priorities on the entire list and put them as the top items in the ‘To Do’ column. Don’t pick five or six. Only three or four, max. If you are feeling a compelling urge to add those ‘ever important’ fifth and sixth items to your list, just wait —we will address those in step three.

There is solid science behind this. Three to four tasks can almost always be accomplished in one day. If you schedule more than that, you’re setting yourself up for possible failure. The ‘Hope To Do’ list is where the other top priorities reside.

2. Declutter

Take another pass at what is left on the list, and start crossing things off. Cross things off that are neither critical or urgent. If it is trivial or something that would be nice to get done but doesn’t have a significant impact on your progress toward your goal then scratch it off.

In the example of items on my to-do list above I list getting the furnace fixed (critical in the cold snowy winter months here in Utah) as well as installing the new EcoBee Smart Thermostat (This is fun to have installed but non-critical nor urgent task).

Getting the furnace fixed is not an option but installing the new smart-home toy is something that doesn’t need to be done today and can be crossed off for today so it doesn’t occupy space on my to-do list nor in my brain . You will be surprised how after doing this for a few days, your “to-don’ts” won’t even make it on the list in the first place.

While you’re creating the To Don’t column, think of any time wasters from yesterday or the day before. Did you watch that cat video on Youtube? Did you surf Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and read every political post available?

Did you try and carry the burden of someone else’s problem instead of letting them take the responsibility? Put these items on the To Don’t list.

If there is something you want to do, but it is not urgent or important, then conscientiously put it on the To Don’t list. In the list above, I didn’t have to clean my bedroom or bathroom or install the new smart thermostat in my home. Those became part of the ‘To Don’t’ list. Putting them in this column reminds me I’ve chosen not to do those things today.

3. Delegate

Step three is the ‘To Delegate’ list. Entrepreneurs and freelancers tend to want to wear all the hats. You want to make sure the product is perfect. You want to get in and make sales. You want to make sure the website is perfect. You want to add the latest innovative feature to your product and…. and…. and…. and… the list goes on, am I right?

As long as you wear all the hats, you will be perpetually inside what we call The Entrepreneur’s Paradox. You will never elevate your business to the next level. This column is critical to becoming the entrepreneurial leader you want to be. Learn to delegate.

One major reason the to-do list gets so big is because tasks others can do are still on your list. Time spent on these tasks is time you could spend on the ‘three most important things’ at the top of your list instead.

Like I said earlier, you may want to put five to six items on your ‘Must Do’ list. If this is the case, look at those five or six tasks one at a time and ask yourself, “who else can do these things for me?” Delegate until you have it back down to three or four. Write the names of each person you will delegate these items to.

4. Be Optimistic

Once you’ve removed the tasks you don’t really need to do, and given away other tasks to people who can do them better, add back in a few of the things you’d still like to get to. These make up your ‘Hope To Do’ list.

If you only accomplish the first three, your day was a success. And if you are able to get more done then it is even more fulfilling. Often a portion of the tasks on my ‘Hope To Do’ list become the next days ‘Must Do.’

Because the left-hand column only has room for nine items, you will occasionally find that there are items that don’t make the list.

I put these on a separate piece of paper called my ‘Parking Lot’ list. This way these tasks are not front and center, don’t add stress, and don’t take up space in my brain while trying to accomplish the truly important things.

Throughout my day, if I find there are things I’m reminded of that pop up, I will take two seconds to evaluate those. They usually land in the ‘Parking Lot’ to look at another day. This is a tremendous way to stay focused without letting nagging distractions take up mental energy.

5. Communicate

The final step is to communicate. Ask the people on your “To Delegate” list for help. Send a quick note requesting the task to be done, put a timeframe around it and thank the person in advance.

You can also look at some of the items that aren’t on your ‘Must Do’ list and clarify the deadline with whomever you have the expectation. If it can be moved, move it.

Now my To-Do list looks more like this:

One big part of the strategy of only having three to four ‘Must Do’ items is that you will have to prioritize. You won’t get the luxury of being sloppy. Three to four items really makes you think about what is most important right now.

With this system, my to-do list went from 83 down to nine, and yet more things were getting done than ever with less stress.

My to-do list and I are friends again, and I enjoy accomplishing the things on my list. I can get things done on time—either personally, or delegated with little to no stress. The same tasks and goals were accomplished, but the stress was gone.

Get this beautiful designed downloadable version of the effective ‘To-Do’ list here, and to read more about how to be a productive entrepreneur and take your business to the next level, check out Curtis’ new book, The Entrepreneur’s Paradox.


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