Why Your To-Do List is Broken and How You Can Fix It

Melissa Joy Kong
Melissa Joy Kong / Published February 27, 2014

How often do you hear people say, "I'm so busy" or "I just don't have enough time"? How often do you say those things?

We're more addicted to being busy than ever before. Our to-do lists have exceeded the amount of time we have to complete the tasks. For many of us, we're left feeling like we're never going to catch up. At best, we have a slight nagging feeling in the back of our minds that there's always more to do. At worst, it leaves us anxious and stressed out.

The heart of the problem is this: We create to-do lists and not success lists.

To-do lists, for too many of us, are an endless stream of things we think we should do, or things people ask us to do. They lack purpose and focus.

A success list, on the other hand, is a list of thoughtfully chosen tasks that maximize one's time and energy, based on the values and goals that matter most to that person.

In the bestselling book, “The One Thing” (a very good read, I highly recommend), authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan have a simple way of explaining why some of us are productive—and some of us aren't.

the one thing
Illustration from The One Thing

The concept goes as follows:

Think of productivity as the tip of an iceberg—it's all most of us see, and therefore, how we judge success. Productivity often looks like getting a lot of things done. But, rarely do we talk about getting the right things done. How do we decide what the right things are?

It's harder to see, because those things live under the water. However, they ultimately determine how "productive" we are. Those two things are: purpose and priority.

Purpose is about having a clear sense of what drives you. You can tell when people have a deep sense of purpose—they radiate joy and find meaning in how they choose to spend their time.

Priority is about knowing what you need to focus on to help you achieve your deepest purpose. It's difficult to prioritize your list of to-dos if you haven't taken time to think about what matters to you most.

Most of us add things to our to-do list without thinking first about our purpose, and thus, priorities. It's easy to add tasks to a list; it requires far more effort to think about why it's important to get something done in the first place. But, if you get clear on your life's purpose now, it'll be much easier to determine your priorities (as well as fuel your productivity) indefinitely. It takes a little bit of time in the beginning, but the long-term return on investment is enormous.

If you want to get at least twice as much done over the course of your life, here's a simple four-step process to identifying your purpose and getting more done than you ever have before.

1. Write Down What Matters to You

How are you spending your time right now? Why are you spending your time that way?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What would you do even if you didn't get paid to do it?
  • What are you deeply deeply passionate about?
  • What do you hope you'll be able to say you accomplished 50 years from now?
  • What is the single most important thing in your life?

These are the questions we rarely take time to sit down and think about. For some reason, it produces anxiety in us. The answers sometimes feel impossible to find. But, you don't have to search much beyond yourself. Think about what you loved doing as a kid. Think about how you choose to spend your free time now. Think about what you talk about the most in conversations with the people closest to you. These will all hint at what you value—what matters most to you.

Next Step:

Take one full day to reflect on and write out your answers to the questions above. Then, try Warren Buffett's incredible five-step process for true success. Make a list of the top 25 things you want to do in the next 2-3 years. Then, whittle that list down to only five things. Read the rest of the article linked above for the surprising details on the rest of Buffett's five-step process.

Warren Buffett

2. Track Your Time

Do you know how you spend your time? If you tracked it for a week, I am confident the results would shock you. I would consider myself a fairly productive person, and when I tracked my time last year, I was appalled to discover that I was spending over two hours a day on social media alone. What an enormous time suck!

We all have a sense of how and why we’re being unproductive (e.g. too much time on social media, in our inboxes, getting ready in the morning, browsing the web, sitting in meetings). But, I can guarantee that for the overwhelming majority of you reading this, you will be shocked by how much time you’re actually wasting on stuff that isn’t really important. If you can figure out exactly how you're spending your time now, you'll know how to better appropriate the time going forward.

Next Step:

Track your time (ideally, in 20-minute intervals) for the next seven days. It's important to know how you're spending your time, even during weekends. I use a worksheet to track my time. Make note of all the things that trigger you getting distracted, so you can figure out how to identify and eliminate those triggers as you refine how you spend your time in the future.

3. Figure Out Your Priorities

It is critical to figure out what your purpose is and how you're spending your time. But both would be useless if they didn't help you determine your true priorities.

Once you have an entire week’s worth of data on how you spent your time, categorize your tasks. Here is a list of category examples to get you started:

  • Social media
  • Checking work email
  • Checking personal email
  • Writing content
  • Strategic planning
  • Meetings
  • Relaxation time
  • Spending time with your family
  • Sleeping

Next, come up with the percentage of time you spend on each activity (divide the amount of time you spend on each activity by 168—the number of hours in a week).

Now, compare this time grid to your list of values and purpose-driven goals. If you say family is the most important thing to you, but you're spending 70 percent of your waking hours on work, you know your priorities are out of balance. Remember, no matter how you feel, it all comes down to what your calendar looks like. Your calendar—how you spend your time each day—reveals your current priorities. If they do not match your ideal priorities, you know something needs to change.

Next Step:

Determine how you'd like to re-distribute your time in the future. What can you spend less time on? What do you want to spend more time on? Make a list of changes you want to make to how you spend your time, based on your life's purpose and what you most want to accomplish in the next 3-5 years (which should, ultimately, tie back to what you want to accomplish in the next 50 years).

Need more motivation? Read the awesomely detailed article by Whitson Gordon of Lifehacker on how to reclaim your time in seven days with the help of an app called RescueTime (below).

4. Create a Success List

Now that you've determined how you want to spend your time based on your purpose-driven values and priorities, it's time to re-think your current "to-do" list. Turn whatever you have into a "success list" instead. This will ensure that everything you decide to spend significant time doing in the future will relate directly back to your purpose and priorities.

Next Step:

First, make sure you compile all of your original "to-dos" in one list. Most of us keep our to-dos in multiple places: our inboxes, notebooks, post-its, random scraps of paper, voice notes, phone notes, etc. Condense everything into one list.

Next, put that list aside for a moment. Loss aversion is a real thing, so don't start with your current list and try to eliminate. Before you even look at your to-do list, create a brand new success list based on your new priorities. Be very thoughtful about what you add to this list. Every single task should relate to your priorities. This includes the bare necessities required to be able to focus on your purpose-driven goals, like managing your finances and weekly planning time.

Finally, make a quick sweep through your old to-do list. If there's anything on there you missed that is critical to accomplishing your priorities, add it to your new "success list." Otherwise, delete everything else. Don't even think twice about it. The only time you'll want to make an exception is if you promised you'd deliver on something and can no longer keep that promise. In those cases, keep your integrity in tact. Make sure you finish up the loose ends—or at the very least, write a note to apologize for not being able to deliver on your initial promise.

Blank Notebook

Remember: You'll Never Be "Done"

Now, you have a success list that will truly help you get more done. There is purpose and priority to everything on your list. When you know why you do what you do, you'll end up getting a lot more done. Stick to your success list, and you'll have mastered the key to ultimate productivity: not just doing things right, but doing the right things in the first place.

Remember, being fully "done" is a terrible myth. It's one that keeps many of us anxious and stressed out. There's absolutely no need for it. There will always be more to do. However, with the steps above, you can go through each day feeling confident about how you spend your time, knowing it's all connected to what you most value.

Credits: Note taking photo courtesy PicJumbo. Warren Buffett photo courtesy Fortune Live Media. Time-tracking worksheet via Buttoned Up. Notebook photo courtesy
Kelly Sikkema

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