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The great tragedy of the to-do list is that it was put together by the person you were yesterday.
David Whyte

To-do lists are the portal through which many people view their lives. In a complex world, they can help calm our brains, which have a tendency to hang on to the undone and the unfinished. It can thus be very helpful to get it all out of your head and give your brain permission to let go in the knowledge that it won’t be forgotten.

What happens, however, is that these lists either multiply or get so unwieldy that you don’t know what is important. So, we need to balance getting it out of the head with not creating unnecessary additional stress for ourselves. We also need to remember that just because something is on a to-do list doesn’t mean it has to be done (or at least by you). After all, the fastest way to do something is not to do it. The core question before starting any task and the key to productivity and time and energy management is thus: “Do I actually need to do this?”


My to-do lists

My to-do lists have evolved over the years from plain lists to something more akin to a matrix of aspirations (who I want to become) versus tasks. This gives me more of a 3D view of what the next step is for each of my aspirations. It provides me with a better sense of how I am allocating my time and I can see when I am putting more time and energy into lower priority items. I call it my Balanced Life matrix. We are, after all, what we practice so if I am saying A is my priority and I am spending a ton of time on B then A clearly isn’t as much of a top priority as I am saying.

Find a way that works for you

Various experts will claim that this or that method is “better”. In my view, the best method is whatever works for you. In truth, there are an infinite number of ways to organise to-do lists and some people get by without any. Other clients love lists and have hundreds of them. For some they are a source of calm, for others a source of stress. What can be helpful for one person is torture for others so the key thing in my view is finding a way that works for you and evolving it as you evolve.

Making to-do lists more effective and less stressful

Working with clients I have found that for those looking to add a dimension of urgency or priority it can be helpful to create certain rules and boundaries around what is added to and stays on a to-do list. So, instead of having one long list, some people find it makes sense to do as follows:

The Today List: This is for urgent matters that should be done today. This is a low-level tactical list so should ideally have a time (or time range) assigned. Any item still on the list at the end of the day offers a great opportunity for reflection:

  • Was I trying to do too much today? [This may require deeper reflection in terms of what you are trying to get done. Was everything you did today a priority? Ask yourself how they helped you towards your aspirations / goals]
  • Is this really a priority? Basically it may have been urgent but was it important?
  • Is this someone else’s to-do?
  • Am I procrastinating? [This can be a sign that something is either not a priority, sucks energy from you and might not be yours to do. Alternatively you could try scheduling a specific time and place in which to do the task]
  • Is something else preventing me from doing it?

At the end of each day the Today list can be populated with the priorities for the coming 24 hours. These priorities can be drawn from a simple reflection of what is on tomorrow or from consulting one of your other lists.

Weekly List: This list is slightly more strategic and rather than to-dos this might be an outcomes list. This week I want to have:

  • – Booked a holiday;
  • – Completed the proposal for John;
  • – Streamlined my time management.

You can then turn that into a to-do by adding it to the Today list. If something is still on the Weekly list at the end of the week the same sort of reflection process as for the Today list might be helpful.

Someday List: This is great for random ideas from your brain or for those tasks that you keep rolling forward from day-to-day. This can be a really helpful way of calming your brain. The brain knows it has been written down and over time you will get a sense for what feels important and urgent and perhaps more critically something that is yours to do. Things can be both important and urgent but not for you to do. Discipline yourself to look at this once a week or once a month and if something feels right them bump up the priority.

Noday List: This is only needed if you struggle to delete items from the Someday list. Some people feel the need to keep the idea somewhere and check through it every couple of months or even years.

This approach can help some people to prioritise and do and be what will make the greatest difference to them now. Anybody can get busy but accomplishment is reserved for those who know what they want.