The Secret of To-Do Lists that Actually Work

It’s Interesting!

Most of our “To-Do” lists set us up for failure and frustration.

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Let’s learn why, and how to create To-Do lists that actually work!

So why don’t they work?
Consider your present “To-Do” list. How often do you simply pick off the short tasks you can immediately finish? And how many items are not really “To-Do’s?” They’re simply serious projects that require significant planning?

So why are most “To-Do” lists so ineffective? Let’s look at three from a wonderful study from Harvard Business School  (  We’ll then look at something different that has really worked for me and a number of my clients.

1.) We must make so many choices!

We have so many endless choices in this “modern” world. One particular study estimates that we must make about 35,000 choices per day!

However, our brains can only handle about seven options before we feel overwhelmed.  This is the reason that all these choices on a To-Do list actually increase our negative feelings about ourselves.

And it is far easier to make decisions when there are fewer choices. Looking at the 58 To-Do’s will either paralyze you or send you into default mode, which may be checking emails or Facebook for an hour instead of doing real work.

2.) Each To-Do takes different times to complete.

Some are three minutes long and others are 33. However, most of us focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff that comes from crossing it off our list. This means that some of those tasks — proofreading the 135 pages of the new employee benefits handbook — are on our list for a long, long time.

3.) Which To-Do is the most important?
A To-Do list looks the same on paper, so there is no context to help you determine what you should work on first. Yes, you have three or four words on a line, but they don’t capture or display two vital bits of information you need: how long will each task take, and how much time do you still have available?

My alternative is called “Living in your Calendar,” and only requires three steps:

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  1. Be ready to take your tasks off the To-Do list
  2. Estimate how much time each of them will consume
  3. Transfer them to your calendar.

In essence, you’re creating a daily Production Plan for your work, right on your calendar.

A couple of add-ons are necessary here.

1.) Don’t forget to leave time to process your email.

2.) And leave some empty space — one to two hours — every day to deal with the inevitable crises that will crop up.)

This new approach helps resolve the reasons that To Do lists are so ineffective.

  1. It overcomes our overwhelming need to continually choose by helping you decide which item to handle at what time
  2. It helps you prioritize your tasks.
  3. It provides the context of deadlines and other commitments.
  4. It provides a (soft) commitment device to help you do the right thing at the right time.

A Kind Warning!!!!

At first it was really hard to remove my tasks from my To Do, but when I saw them on my calendar, and then saw them getting done, it was…and is…wonderfuI!!!

You are simply using your calendar to paint a true picture of the time commitments you have on your plate. And whether or not you make these commitments visible, they’re there.

After all, if you’re going to be run over by a truck, you might as well get its license plate.

And…putting your work in the calendar enables you to better determine whether or not you can (or should) say yes to a new project. And if you do say yes, you can better determine when you realistically might be able to get it done.

So do yourself a favor: ditch the to-do lists, and start living in your calendar today.

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