To-Do List Don’ts – Part 2

To-Do List Don’ts – Part 2

To-do lists can help ensure we are working on what matters most to us. A to-do list can also reduce the cognitive load in trying to keep track of too much in our brains. Research shows that just the act of writing something down that comes into your head can help reduce the mental energy it takes to keep track of it, and can allow you to focus better on the work that you are doing. So task lists are important not just for planning, but for allowing us to focus more fully on everything else that we are doing. Here are the last 5 of 10 to-do list don’ts to help you in your quest to finally create a system that will work for you. These will make more sense if you read the first 5 don’ts.

Each task is an experience waiting to be born… When you look at your task list that way… this will become your future.


  1. Not prioritizing. Once you have your (very selective) list of projects with subcategories of tasks on your list, the next step is to prioritize them. Figure out what you need to do first based on deadlines, team needs, and importance. If we don’t prioritize then it’s easy to get behind on projects, and also it becomes all-to-tempting to do the easy, urgent, or fun tasks, and put off the important-but-less-urgent tasks that will really help transform our careers or that are important to us. Prioritization may be on a monthly/yearly time-frame, but then on the it’s important to prioritize within your day. What are the 1-3 things that you definitely want to do? Being intentional about your priorities can help keep you from wasting time on things that don’t matter to you. In my own practice, I’ll either write out a quick ‘daily do’ list of my goals for the day, or I’ll add numbers next to the check boxes on my to-do list for what I want to do that day. Under-achieve here. If you make a list of 25 things you deem high-priority for the day, chances are you won’t do most of them.

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.


  1. Not putting tasks onto your calendar. The goal with a to-do list is not to catalogue all the things you would like to do with your life, but to facilitate doing them! The next step from to-do list is to put time on your calendar when you will do it. This may be on a weekly or daily basis depending on how you schedule your time. Put the tasks on during a time when you can do them well. I usually schedule deep work for mid morning or early afternoon, which is when I work best. Don’t schedule your most difficult work for a time when you know you will be exhausted from difficult meetings or at the end of a long day if you can help it. Block out the deep work times in your day and then decide what you will do with them. Some writers advocate the death of the to-do list and that we should work purely from our calendar by time-blocking and adding everything we want to do to our calendars. While I’m a big fan of time-blocking, I still find it helpful to keep a to-do list so that I can easily see all the projects I’m working on at once, and I can adjust or delete things on my calendar without losing track of what I need to do next. This is important for me, as my schedule can change in the last-minute if I get called in to cover the Emergency Department if a colleague is sick. I need to have a repository for all my projects and tasks so that I can quickly clear my schedule and re-prioritize.

The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.


  1. Giving up because a system isn’t perfect. You will likely never create a system that will transform you into a productivity ninja who never feels overwhelmed or over-tasked. Instead, find something that works and stick to it long enough to figure out a system that works for you. Perfect is the enemy of good here. Also, know yourself. I am frequently in awe (and sometimes jealous) of the beautiful bullet journals that some people maintain. They are often more art than organization, but I feel like I should try something like that. Keep the unrealistic expectations in check. If you know, for example, that you will overload a digital to-do list, then stick to paper. If you know you will lose a paper list, then find a simple digital app. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work for you.
  1. Failing to celebrate. Here’s the truth: our brains like dopamine. We will always tend to do things that give our brains more dopamine. You can harness that to create the habits you want by celebrating. Did you do that micro-task? Yay! You turned your computer on and opened the file that is intimidating you. Celebrate. Engage some positive self-talk. Celebration is one of the key features of creating successful habits. In fact, the main premise of Tiny Habits is to make ridiculously small actions that form the seeds of habits. Those seeds are watered by celebration and positive self-talk. Did you manage to not lose the to-do list this week? Strong work. Did you prioritize? Round of applause. It may sound silly and would probably sound condescending coming from someone else, but celebrating your small wins is what will carry your habits and actions further than any self-criticism.

When you celebrate, you create a positive feeling inside yourself on demand. This good feeling wires the new habit into your brain. Celebration is both a specific technique for behavior change and a psychological frame shift.


  1. Failing to reflect. The reality is, “a scant minority of us check off everything every day. An equally tiny minority simply Cannot Even and are curled in a fetal ball awaiting imminent firing. But most of us? We’re just sort of … meh” (Clive Thompson, Wired). Look at the things that you didn’t check off. Should they be lower priority? Can you delegate them? Do you even want or need to do them in the first place? Did you avoid them because they are frustrating or induce self-doubt and fear of failure? Or are these things that you want to spend your short, mortal life on? Reflecting on what you are doing and why can help you ruthlessly prioritize for the future to make sure you are spending more time doing what matters to you… which may not be work at all.

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