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Manage and prioritize your to-do list

To-do lists won't help your productivity if you don't execute them well. Leaders can further their careers and get more done with a better approach.

5 min read


Manage and prioritize your to-do list


In a previous series for SmartBrief, I laid out my 5-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a Productivity Blueprint. This post goes deeper on the first of my five steps, planning for maximal productivity, and picks up from his last one, which detailed how to identify our most important tasks.

Few productivity tools elicit divergent opinions as does a to-do list. Despite their longstanding as the method of choice for productivity enthusiasts, to-do lists have come under recent fire as an antiquated system that must be improved upon or dropped.

Some reasons for this are that list users will:

  • Put everything on their lists, regardless of the level of impact it has on our day. They see their list as a workplace parking lot where everything gets dumped until it gets completed.
  • Get overwhelmed just by looking at all the things they need to do. Not surprisingly, these lists can quickly get out of hand and start to overwhelm us. We experience paralysis by analysis and just sit there wondering how we can possibly do it all. 
  • Don’t know how to prioritize. Everything on the list looks the same. It’s hard to distinguish between low-value and high-value tasks.
  • Struggle to properly estimate how long each task will take to complete. We optimistically assume that most of our tasks will take less time than what they’ll actually take. In fact, one study found that only 17% of the population can accurately estimate the time something will take. Think about it. And be honest. When was the last time you actually crossed everything off your to-do list?
  • Feel that they are continuously adding to their list instead of reducing it. It’s like we’re on a race to the bottom, only to find that there never is a bottom. This keeps us from feeling a sense of completion with our day and our work. Nobody who leaves the office with a half-completed list feels like they owned the day. Instead, it feels like the day owned us.
  • Use them to avoid doing the things they just don’t want to do. They crowd their lists with easy, enjoyable, low-impact activities so that they can pat themselves on the back at day’s end. But what have they really accomplished? Which is unfortunate, considering the things we don’t want to do tend to be the things we actually need to be doing.

Gary Keller, best-selling author of “The One Thing,” argues that, “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.”

To turn your to-do list into a “success list,” consider these strategies:

  1. Be selective. Remember, we can only handle so much each day. To make your list manageable, only add things that (1) are actionable and measurable (such as making 20 sales calls,) (2) can be finished in one sitting, and (3) only the to-do-list writer can fulfill.
  2. Set time on your calendar. Block out the time you need to get the highest priority work done.
  3. Prioritize your list. Look for the most important tasks (MITs) and elevate them to the top of the list. Some people color code for different types of tasks. Others use whiteboards or corkboards. Whatever works best for you, so long as it works.
  4. Break it down. When your list contains larger tasks with multiple components, make your work more approachable by breaking those projects into smaller, quantifiable tasks. For example, instead of “work on research paper,” consider “write first 500 words of chapter three.”
  5. Start easy. Before attacking those MITs, stick a few simple, “2 minute” items on the list. This will help you to build momentum and whet your appetite for the real work. In general, a good current list typically contains some combination of one large project, 2-3 medium-sized tasks, and 4-5 smaller ones.
  6. Share your plans. We often do our best work when someone is holding us accountable. Whether you post it to your social media feed, set up a digital calendar that everyone involved with the project can access, or better yet, identify an accountability partner, sharing your intentions with others will keep you in line and focused on the task(s) at hand.
  7. Check off. As you complete items on the list, check them off or put a line through them. You can do this digitally as well. There’s little that is more gratifying than having a slew of items crossed off your list after a long day.
  8. Trim. Most lists have a few “ever present” items that never seem to get done but just pushed further down the list. Try to figure out what’s getting in the way to learn what steps are necessary for actually completing these tasks. 


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new productivity blueprint and his e-books, “Core Essentials of Leadership,” “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing” and “How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.”

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