If you are like most adults, to-do lists govern a lot of your daily activities. I myself use a to-do list, and I can empathize with that feeling of overwhelm when looking at a long list of tasks.
With no structure or method for prioritizing a to-do list, most people will tackle the “quick wins” first. That’s any task that takes the least amount of time or energy.
And it’s true that this is sometimes a good way to gain some momentum. But if your list is anything like mine, you could spend an entire afternoon or heck, an entire DAY doing just these minor tasks.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easy for a seemingly quick task like “schedule team meeting” to devolve into 45 minutes of calendar wrangling.
Quick win tasks feel great to complete because, on a long list of tasks, they appear to have equal weight. If you have 10 items on your to-do list and complete one, your 10% done! In this way, you’ve created a false sense of accomplishment.
Here’s the reality: some tasks hold greater urgency and importance than others. So while you may feel that rush of adrenaline checking off that relatively less important task, you can end the day feeling guilt and shame that you have made no further progress on your bigger projects.
Combine Before You Divide
When you’re ready to start fresh on your to-do list, I recommend starting with the weekly review framework. It’s best to do this every Friday afternoon, although you can do it whenever you are feeling motivated.
The point is to pull all your tasks into one list. Besides your current running list of things to do, you’ll add to it any loose ends, items you need to prep for upcoming meetings, or random ideas you scribbled in the margins of your notebook.
Once all your thoughts are in one place, you can prioritize.
Defining the Immediate Next Action
For people that feel overwhelmed by the length and meatiness of their lists, the most powerful tips I can offer is to replace projects on your lists with an actionable task.
This is helpful if you have a single to-do list item for a bigger project.
For example, let’s say you have a to-do list item that is “Prepare long-term strategy slide deck”. That seems straightforward enough. In truth, this task has multiple steps- maybe hundreds of steps. So when this task of preparing a strategic presentation is listed alongside a task to respond to an email, it’s no wonder that nine times out of ten you’ll choose the task that requires the least time, effort, and energy.
So, for those “tasks” that are actually projects, determine the next immediate step to move the ball forward. On our hypothetical strategy slide deck, perhaps it’s deciding which PowerPoint template to use. Now, doesn’t that already feel less stressful and more achievable?
Prioritizing Your Task List
Perhaps the most common productivity pitfall is strictly prioritizing tasks based on urgency. There are many frameworks for prioritizing tasks, but the one I find most universally applicable is the Eisenhower Matrix.
Former U.S. President Eisenhower had it right when he said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
You can read up more about how to use the Eisenhower matrix, but there is one really critical decision that can cause the whole framework to fall apart.
You must have defined lines for what you label “important”.
Over and over again, people tell me the same thing about their to-do lists. “Everything is urgent! Everything is important!”
This is simply not true. Multiple studies have pointed out that we easily confuse urgency FOR importance. That is, if something is urgent, then we believe it is important.
Here are the questions I use to determine if a task is important:
- Will completing this task directly contribute to my professional growth goals?
- Does this task align with my life or workplace values?
- What is the long-term impact of completing this task?
Do not get too meta about this. It’s easy to reason yourself into every task being important. If you’re struggling with a list of tasks that are all “important”, it may be good to chat with a trusted friend or a coach to help validate your thinking.
The Today List
Once you have prioritized your to-do list, I suggest making a Today list.
Open up a new clean page in your notebook and write today’s date on it. Then add a single task to the list.
Yep, just one. The most useful Today lists have exactly one item on it.
Why? Looking at a long list of tasks – even tasks on a matrix – is stressful. A clean sheet of paper with just one item on it helps narrow your focus and really zero-in on what needs to be done.
You should select an item in your Urgent/Important quadrant for your Today list, or if nothing is in that quadrant (YEAH you!) then choose something in the Not-Urgent/Important list.
If you can, block off one hour at the beginning of your workday to tackle your one task. Remember, we’re talking about just the next immediate action- Deciding on the PowerPoint Template, not building the entire Strategy Deck. In most cases, just completing that first small task generates momentum to make more progress on the project.
With your Today list complete, you can spend the rest of your day working through other items. Cherry-pick items off your matrix, depending on your energy and time available. I like to add items one at a time from my master list onto my Today list.
There’s something powerful and energizing about saying, “I finished everything on my to-do list!”. I also love having a written record of what I completed that day.
In summary, my tips for wielding a massive to-do list are:
- Merging all your tasks into one place
- Substituting projects disguised as tasks for the next immediate action
- Prioritizing your list into an urgent/important matrix
- Using a Today list to get hyper-focused
If you need help sorting through a massive to-do list, I’m here to help! Book 45 minutes with me and we’ll tackle it together.
Pam Duffy is a consultant based in Dallas, TX. She is a licensed professional engineer and has 10+ years of experience in the HVAC industry. Pam helps people through business consulting, one-on-one coaching, and speaking.