Why your to do list doesn’t work

What do you think of when you think of a to do list?

I think of a long list of tasks on a big bit of paper. Any task, any order just written down as you think of them. There may be ticks next to some tasks or even crossed out but not in order, all ticked/ crossed off in random places.

Sound familiar?

Now how do those types of lists make you feel? From talking to many people, here are the top 5.

  • Overwhelmed – Usually because the list is so long and feels unachievable.
  • Demotivated – As above, it just feels like there is no point even starting as you know you won’t get it all done.
  • Panicked – When everything seemingly has the same deadline (as all on the same list) it all feels urgent leading you to panic about getting it all done.
  • Stressed – Again, all of the above. It is stressful worrying how you are going to fit it all in.
  • Failure – If you do tick some things off at by the end of your day, you can still feel like a failure for not completing the long list yet and having things carried over to the next day.

Well, I don’t think you need me to say any more about why your to do list isn’t working for you. No one wants to feel like that, let alone just a few tasks on a bit of paper. So why do we? Probably because we don’t know any better. We are told to write it all down, so we don’t forget anything. To write a list so you remember to buy everything/ clean everything and even to apparently feel more accomplished. Whilst yes, a to do list does help you remember everything you need to do; this is only the first step. This is where many go wrong.

So, what can you do differently?

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

First up, take that to do list and change the title. It seems silly but telling yourself it isn’t a to do list will make the world of difference. I call it a brain dump. I have a little book which I keep by my bed at night and in the kitchen in the day and as things pop in my head that I need to do, on the list it goes. A brain dump is purely for the purpose of getting everything out of your head and taking up space there and putting it to paper, so you know nothing gets forgotten.

Next, I want you to take that list of absolutely EVERYTHING you need to do and categorise it into areas of your life. That could be work, family, side hustle, friends, life admin – whatever categories work best for you. It doesn’t matter too much what they are called. I tend to just crack out the highlighters to do this and have a different colour for each category.

Now it is time to prioritise that list. I have worked in offices for most of my career and Eisenhowers matrix of prioritisation is fairly commonly known. However, I realised that this could be applied to every area of your life, and this is how I recommend you prioritise your to do list.

Eisenhowers matrix of prioritisation is essentially 4 squares (as in the picture) which make up a table. The columns are; important and not important and the rows are; urgent and not urgent.

This then means any given task has the option of becoming categorised into one of the following:

  • Important and urgent
  • Important and not urgent
  • Not important and urgent
  • Not important and not urgent

Ok so what does that have to do with me I hear you cry! Well… try this.

Take each task from your brain dump and ask yourself where it fits in this matrix.

Important and urgent tasks may include things like picking your children up from school that day, or perhaps getting that job application sent off for your dream job and the deadline is today. It is all relative to you and what is important to you and if there is an imminent deadline or not.

Important and not urgent tasks may include things like teaching yourself how to cook a recipe as it is important to you to learn how to cook better, or it could be decorating the bathroom as you hate it. You may put your morning workout in this category as a goal is to lose weight and if it isn’t done in the morning it won’t happen. They are things that are important to you but don’t necessarily have an imminent deadline.

Not important and urgent tasks are usually life’s little surprises or things that wouldn’t affect your life but something you have to get done anyway. Perhaps your boss has landed an urgent project on you that personally would have no effect on you if it was done or not but has become urgent, nonetheless. Or perhaps a visitor is coming last minute and you need to speed clean the house. Realistically not that important (especially if the visitor is a friend or family) but urgent to you now.

Not important and not urgent tasks are everything else. All the little things that are going on in your mind. The fridge needs cleaning out, I need to book in a haircut sometime etc 

Important just means that the task will help you get to where you want to be in life. That doesn’t mean be selfish. An important task to you may be to buy your sister a birthday present because it is important to you to remain close to your family. However equally just because it is urgent, does not mean it is necessarily important to you. It is something that takes some time to get your head around and distinguish the difference but once you start practicing putting things into this table, it will become easier and easier.

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

Essentially the aim of the game is simple. When deciding what to do first when scheduling your day, pick in this order.

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Not important and urgent
  3. Important and not urgent
  4. Not important and not urgent

Once you start prioritising your to do list in an order, it is amazing how much better you feel. Yes, you may not have crossed everything off your brain dump but that is ok because you know you aren’t behind and missing deadlines and everything is in importance order.

You should find, over some time that the first category (important and urgent) starts to get smaller, and this means you are winning. The smaller your important and urgent category is the better. Your important and not urgent list could be as long as your arm but so long as you are not feeling pressured to get it done, you will not be feeling all those things we went through earlier.

Unfortunately, I can never rid you of life’s little surprises altogether (not important and urgent) but if your first category (important and urgent) is small or even empty you know you can crack onto them fairly quickly and still be able to get to your other tasks that are important to you and help you achieve your goals.

Of course, this is just the start of a much wider topic on scheduling, time blocking and planning your week effectively. In fact, I never refer to my brain dump in the day, instead I have my top 3 priorities and time block from there. I only refer to my brain dump when scheduling my next day, the night before. That way I am only looking what I know I have time to achieve that day.

If you would like a copy of my time saving planners to help kick start this for you, you can download them here.

Alternatively, if you would like some more guidance about applying this to your life, you are more than welcome to book in a free consultation with me and we can see how I can help you.

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