We need to talk about your to-do list.
Specifically, we need to talk about how many items are on your to-do list. There are the important things, like reminders about work projects or can’t-afford-to-forget personal or family tasks. But there are also due dates for bills, family events, even random tasks like pick up the dry cleaning. And then, there are the tasks that—admit it—are never going to get done. A lot of us treat our to-do list as more of what David Allen of Getting Things Done would call the “someday/maybe” list—things we’d love to get done “someday” if “maybe” we ever find the time.
The goal of a to-do list is noble. It’s a list of random stuff that we don’t want to have to keep in our brain, so we write it down to remember it.
The problem with this “catch all” approach to tasks is that there is no way to convey any sense of importance. All tasks just look equal. The stuff that needs to get done that day that is most important and most urgent is just right in there with, “Hey, remember to buy new undershirts on the way home from work,” which is not all that important. (I guess if you have no undershirts it might be important before tomorrow, but beyond that, it’s not really a very productive task compared to your most important stuff.)
So how do we fix it?
The solution is a little counter-intuitive: take the really important stuff off your to-do list.
Don’t remove them in order to narrow down the list and remove items. It’s to put the most important stuff where it’ll be more likely to be seen, remembered, and accomplished. If you’re already using your to-do list like a giant list of stuff you want to remember, then take the most important thing off and put it on your calendar.
Once a day, or once a week, look at your to-do list and decide what’s most important and then pick a time to do them and schedule it. Beyond just putting it somewhere it’ll get more attention, we know from research in behavioral economics that just mentally thinking about the time and location in which you will work on something makes it much more likely that you will accomplish it. So by putting it on your calendar, you make it one step closer to complete.
The problem with your to-do list is that your most important stuff is on it—along with everything else. So, if it’s that important, take it off your to-do list and put it on your calendar.