Four effective ways to master to-do lists and what to do if you don’t like any of them

About half an hour ago I had a conversation with a fellow mom at the school playground. I was taking a break from writing this post, and the content was very much on my mind. What did she have to say on the topic of to-do lists? “Oh, I don’t have to-do lists. I’m just disorganized.” “So how do you manage?” “I put out fires all the time”.
If the sentiment above resonates with you, read on.
Some people recoil when faced with an idea of running a to-do list, never mind, god forbid, doing it on a daily basis. We’re going to explore why this might be the case, what to do in each particular scenario, and then offer a few alternative ways to keep the overwhelm at bay.

Here are four most common reasons people hate to-do lists:
1. You picture long, tedious pages of tasks that you’ll never finish anyway.

Try this: Write down three things on a sticky note. Not just any three things, things that really need to get done today. Things that if you don’t get to them today, your clients, or your reputation, or your health will really suffer. Any sticky can hold 3 short sentences. Put it in your pocket.
For example:
   ·         Pencil-draw Website Menu Outline
   ·         Write that “this is how I dominate the world of coffee, and now you can too” blog post
   ·         Put my car in the garage to check axle leakage

Note how I used verbs in every bullet. Verbs make us take action. “Website menu” is amorphous.  “Pencil-draw” defines what you’re going to do about it. 
For the rest of the day, focus on these three things. Don’t do anything else, before these three are done.

But what if I have a ton of other stuff to do? What if I create huge backlogs, and never dig myself out of it? (Cue mini panic attack). 
Good news on this front: when our brain holds a narrow focus on something specific, that specific something tends to get done quicker and better. You don’t get distracted, you press on, you get it DONE. Awesome!

Miraculously, focusing on just a couple things in a single day frees up space in your head, and subsequently in your schedule. After a few days of “just doing the three things”, you’ll notice more time is suddenly available for “the rest” you were so worried about.  
On top of that, the satisfaction that comes from crossing important somethings off your list and off you mind… priceless. It’s one of the biggest motivators and stress relievers out there.

Do this for a week. See how it works for you and leave a comment in this blog. Put a reminder, to make sure you do that.

2.You picture too much admin overhead.

You’ve been told to keep all of your to-dos in a system, and who’s got time for that? Besides, new things pop up all the time, so what’s the point of making a list of things that might become outdated by lunchtime?

Try this:   Against the grain of my beloved GTD, I’m going to say that it’s OK to capture less than 100% of your stuff. Yes, ideally all your tasks would be held in some trusty system, popping up at the right moment. Even more ideally, the admin overhead for maintaining such a system would take minutes a day. (It’s doable, but requires some intense setting up).
However, if your choices are “do MOST of my stuff, MOST of the time” and “put out fires ALL the time”, what’s your pick?
That’s what I thought.

Let’s make peace with capturing ALMOST everything. This assumption alone is going to greatly improve you relationship with a to-do list – you might start one, and use it to guide you through the day or a project.

3. You simply hate to write.

A certain portion of my clients seem to share this quirk with me. I used to have a real barrier against writing stuff down. Maybe you feel a written word has to be polished, and you don’t have the patience to perfect your task descriptions. Maybe you carry painful memories about “not trying hard enough” from grade school. Maybe you are an auditory learner, and best process information while listening.

Try this: If you hate of writing is keeping you from putting together a to-do list, talk. Plenty of apps (for example, this, this, and this) are happy to type down your spoken to-dos.  There is something about saying things out loud that make a stronger imprint on our brain. We tend to focus better on a task, once we’ve vocalized it in detail. Speaking your to-do list, will a) keep in short and manageable, and b) make it actually exit, with all the perks that to-do list brings.

4. You’re not really good at defining tasks.

This one is hard to admit, but maybe your attempts at making a to-do list produce something frustratingly amorphous? How are you supposed to accomplish “roof is leaking”? Or “Facebook tune-up”?

Try this: If you’ve written “Search Angie’s List for roofers in Pleasantville”, that might be helpful. You’ve used a verb, and defined the next step towards your goal of fixing a leaking roof (I’m going to assume you wanted that roof to stop leaking. Otherwise the task would read “punch more holes in the roof”.)


Then again, you might feel that no matter what you try, a to-do list is too much structure, and it only restricts your creativity.

So here are a couple alternatives to the traditional to-do lists:

1.       Abandon to-do lists altogether, but focus on the MONEY. What does that mean? Do the activities that bring you closer to making money. For example, stop following 50 designers on Twitter and start sending invoices already. Put down that shiny webinar invitation, and finish this ad for your industry magazine. Once you focus on tasks that make you money, it’s amazing how quickly an order starts to emerge, your focus enhances and more stuff gets done.

 2.        Default to NO (shout out to people pleasers). The heart-centered, the deeply caring tend to rise up to every occasion. If you’re a woman, you’re even more likely to do that - we’re raised and conditioned to be nourishing. This maybe stating the obvious, but the inability to say no leaves you with way too many things to do. Things that aren’t necessarily nourishing to you or your business.

Here is a challenge for you: for the next 2 days, say no to every request and invitation, unless it’s a screaming necessity. No need to make elaborate explanations. A simple “sorry, I have too much on my plate right now” will do.
If you can’t bear flat-out refusing, try delay tactics – say you’ll try to do that in a couple weeks. Often the request will resolve itself before you have a chance to get sucked into someone else’s agenda.
Let me know how it goes after two days – leave a comment on this blog.

3.       Decide what to do NEXT. My dad is spectacular at chess. He says that good  players  calculate and foresee 5 moves ahead.  What will your opponent do next? And if he does this,  how would you react? What move you’d make if he does that instead of this? You build a number of scenarios in your head, each one about 5 moves long.
Now, I always lacked the patience to do that, which is why I’m a lousy chess player, genetics notwithstanding.

But! If you plan ONE move ahead, in other words, decide what you’re going to do after your current task, you keep the momentum. You’ll probably accomplish three times as much.

Now what?
Look at both lists and see which scenario resonates with you most. Then go try the strategy in that paragraph for a week. And let me know in the comments how it changes your workday.