How To Stop Living In The Shadow Of Your To-Do List

To_Do_Shadow_PIRAre you tired of being bullied by your To-Do list? I sure was. Looking at all those undone tasks made me cringe and want to dive back under the bed covers.

Here’s The Problem

The purpose of a To-Do list is to capture incremental actions you are committed to doing. When you have 5 minutes left before lunch you should be able to scan the list, pick a 5-minute task and get it done.  Your reward is a big, bold check mark or crossed-off item.

By contrast, projects require decisions and multiple steps. You can’t do a project—you can only do tasks.

Problems are inevitable when we mix projects and tasks on the same list. You’re probably doing this without even realizing it.

Which of these do you think are tasks and which ones are projects?

  • Buy new tires
  • Clean garage
  • Birthday present for Sal
  • Call Sean
  • Pay bills
  • Have the carpets cleaned
  • Hire a new staff member/plumber/whatever
  • Write a blog post

If you said ‘Call Sean’ is a task and all the others are projects, you’re right.

Even a simple item like ‘Buy new tires’ requires multiple steps. What kind of tires do you want? All season, winter, low profile… What size do you need? What’s a fair price? Where will you buy them? Is the warranty important to you? Will you need them installed right away? Do you need to find a garage that’s open on weekends or can you work this into your weekday schedule?

If ‘Buy tires’ is on your To-Do list, you’ve actually packed 7 or 8 actions into that one, innocent-looking item. Phew! No wonder we never get to the bottom of our lists.

Your Projects Need To Live Somewhere Else

To safely remove projects from your To-Do list, you need to designate a new place to house them. Pick a single spot where you can list them all. I use Evernote. It’s available on all my devices and easy to use. You might prefer a 3-ring notebook or a moleskin. Use whatever works for you.

Meet Your New To-Do List

Your list should be a lot shorter now that you’ve removed the projects. But hold on—how will your projects ever get completed if they’re not allowed on your To-Do list? This is where you spend a little time with the project list to determine the next step for each one. Choose just one next action. That’s what you add to the To-Do list. One action per project.

Remember: A task is the smallest identifiable step toward completing a project. That’s what you want on your To-Do list. Getting back to those tires we’ve been talking about, maybe your first step is to call Bob for a recommendation. Let’s replace ‘Buy new tires’ with ‘Call Bob about tires’.

Why This Works

This system works because it’s simple. It forces you to break larger projects into individual, doable actions. You’re left with a To-Do list that will help you win back some of your day.

I just learned how to build a more powerful To-Do list. < Click to tweet this


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