Whether it was Franklin, Edison, or some other obscure figure whose name we’ll never know, the creator of the to-do list had the right idea in mind. To-do lists help us structure our days around future tasks. Once you’ve created one, it’s easier to feel like you’re in control. You have yourself a plan and you’re ready to take on the day.
Take it a step further, forget the “to-do” part, and you’re left with a list — which helps us make sense of chaos and stay away from the general feeling of “too much going on.” Whether you think to-do lists are useless or live by one to get through your week, to-do lists are still an essential modern-day tool regardless of whether you’re writing it down or keeping a mental note of it.
However, creating a to-do list doesn’t mean you’re using it effectively. Here’s what not to-do when making a daily list of your tasks.
What they don’t tell you about making to-do lists
To-do lists have gotten a bad rap in recent years — and for good reason. It isn’t uncommon for them to do more harm than good. Why? Because the everyday list maker doesn’t know how to create one that’ll be an asset to their day rather than a liability.
While creating a quick to-do list might get the job done if you just need to visualize all your tasks in one place, it won’t do the job of organizing your day around your most important tasks.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about writing to-do lists:
1. Quantity doesn’t get you anywhere
The biggest mistake you could be making when creating to-do lists? Focusing too much on the number of items rather than the quality of each individual to-do. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the more items you have on your to-do list, the more productive you’ll be. But this isn’t the case.
In fact, if you are simply writing down every single task that’ll fill your day you’re doing what’s called a “brain dump” — which is when you “dump” or write out everything floating around in your head.
2. A to-do list isn’t an automatic priority list
It’s too common to assume that a to-do list automatically turns into a priorities list. And this is where you end up wasting precious time on tasks that aren’t important. Rather than creating a list and thinking that’ll successfully get you through to the productivity finish line, consider prioritizing the items on your list by their most important factor. But more on that later.
3. It’s too long
Trying to do too much is a recipe for disaster whether you’re writing a simple to-do list or doing anything else. It's a surefire way to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and even anxious. A good rule of thumb is to stick to three to-do list items — five if you’re pushing it.
4. You aren’t using your to-do list to reflect
If you want your to-do list to be effective, get as much use out of it as you can. I like to do what I like to call an end-of-day reflection. I sit and intentionally think back and rewrite a list of what I managed to finish that day. It helps if you write what you finished right beside what you intended to do as a way to get perspective on how you’re using your time and what you’re capable of on a daily basis.
5. You aren’t using a to-do list system
If you want to be productive, you need to have a system in place for your to-do list. This might involve using specific criteria to prioritize each task a certain way, or it can be a system that separates marker and manager tasks. Your call.
Maybe the biggest negative that comes with to-do list con is the fact that creating a list makes it easy to feel like you’re being productive — even if that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s for that reason your to-do list needs a facelift, which involves a new way of looking at your most important daily tasks.
The overlooked ingredient your to-do list is missing
By now, you’ve probably heard the saying, “manage your energy, not your time.” With the same idea in mind, an effective to-do list that paves the way to productivity is created when you, “manage your results, not your tasks.”
Let’s dive deeper.
To-do lists only work well if you actually do what you write on them. Common sense, right? But the missing ingredient is a second step that involves prioritizing each task by the return on their investment.
In other words, how valuable is the end result of finishing that task? Which of those results will actually move the needle and help you make progress toward where you want to go?
Answering these two questions then ranking your to-do list by those answers ensures your to-do list contains a few non-negotiable elements:
- Clarity on what you’ll be spending your time on that day
- What the top three most important items on your list are without a doubt
- Harnessing real productivity by prioritizing value over quantity
Why does this work?
Our brains are wired to pay attention to things that have high-reward potential. This means that the tasks at the top of your to-do list that fit this criteria will always get your attention first — assuming you organized them by results. The problem is that not all of these items are created equal.
The sweet spot is a task that may not be urgent but that has the highest pay-off potential. This is the kind of task that will actually move the needle and help you achieve your goals. It’s the kind of task you want to put at the top of your list. Always and without fail.
Author of The One Thing, Gary Keller details this value-based system as a way to cut through the noise.
Keller doesn’t mince words. He explains, “Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.”
That success list is your highest pay-off results list. It’s a list of three to five daily tasks that’ll be the most productive regardless of whether it happens on a short or long-term basis.
Any other menial tasks — like answering emails, filling in forms, editing, running errands, or otherwise — can be done after the fact if time allows. Applying this approach habitually over a long enough period of time can not only accelerate your results but it also helps you develop habits you can depend on for life.
Elevate your to-do lists with Sunsama
Value-driven to-do lists are great. But they’re even better with an element of automation in the mix. This is where Sunsama comes in. As a daily planner app with a focus on productivity, it helps you manage your time by integrating it with your to-do list and tracking your progress.
Sunsama is the best daily planner for people who want to establish a productivity system that’s reliable, minimalist, and habit-forming. It integrates with your to-do list and tracks your progress so you keep everything in one place.
Best of all, it’s free to try, and no credit card is required either.