Chances are good that you can’t follow your to-do list.
It’s not because of interruptions or a lack of time, and it’s not that you’re a bad person.
It’s nothing personal; in fact, everyone has the same problem.
To-do lists were invented for a simpler time, a time when you could list your tasks for the day, in order of priority, and simply run through the list, getting as far as time allowed.
Today, if you think you’re doing that, chances are good that you’re fooling yourself.
You don’t have a to-do list. You have several to-do-ish systems, and whenever you get tired of one, you move on to the next. You jump ship.
As a result, it’s tough to make solid decisions about what actually needs to be done, then do it.
That’s how we end up with a huge to-do list, three stacks of paper, eight sticky notes, and a hundred emails, all vying for our attention.
Why Following One List Is Hard
We avoid making a single list of everything we need to do because we know it’ll be an overwhelmingly huge list.
Picking one task from a huge list is essentially to say “no” to the rest of them, and this creates a condition psychologists call choice overload: when we have too many options to choose from, we can’t process all of the information in order to make a rational decision.
We need mental shortcuts that make the situation less overwhelming. We need to simplify.
And what’s the simplest option when faced with a monstrous to-do list?
Doing nothing. Walking away from the list altogether.
Of course, you’re not going to take a nap; you’ll stay busy. But you’ll divert your attention to work that’s not on your real, carefully considered to-do list.
You’ll start using sticky notes, or chasing every interruption, or staring at your inbox. You won’t stay focused on your real work.
If we want to avoid this unproductive tendency, we need to give ourselves better mental shortcuts for handling the real list.
What The Most Productive People Do
Maybe you’re an exception to the pattern I described above. Perhaps you can make a good to-do list and run through it each day.
If so, you probably have powerful heuristics, mental shortcuts, in place to avoid sending yourself into cognitive overload every time you look at your to-do list.
Everyone can develop these shortcuts. Here’s how to get started.
1. Make More Specific Lists
First, you can avoid creating excessively long lists in the first place.
In the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, I teach administrators to create more specific PEEPs whenever a system gets too overwhelming.
If your to-do list is too long, it should probably be several, more specific lists.
(If you have to scroll or flip pages, it’s probably too long.)
For example, I keep blog post and newsletter article ideas in my to-do list app, but in their own lists, not mixed in with my daily tasks. If I don’t need to see it now, I’ll use the features of my to-do app to hide it from view.
You can use due dates, labels, tags, or filters in the same way. Decide what you need to see, and what you don’t.
2. Do The First Thing First
Second, you can give yourself an easy-to-follow rule for handling any list: Always tackle the first item, and only the first item.
Note that I’m not saying “Do first things first” or “Do the the most important tasks first.” Just do the physically topmost item on your list, every time. Don’t consider any alternatives.
You can’t do three things at once, even if they’re all top priorities. You can only do one, so rather than scroll endlessly, looking for just the right task to do now, simply do whatever’s first.
If you’re worried that this isn’t the most important task, take a minute to move the most important task to the top. Then do it.
It’s so simple it barely sounds like a strategy, but when you separate deciding from doing, even by something as small as a mouse click, you can avoid worrying about whether you’re working on the right thing. You can make a decision and get to work.
3. Consolidate Your Lists
If your main to-do list is incomplete because you’re keeping things on sticky notes or in your head, you’re not going to trust it fully. You’ll second-guess yourself, and you won’t be as focused.
So once you’ve committed to doing the first thing on your list first, stop using all those other systems. Type the sticky notes into your real to-do list and throw them in the trash. Drag those tasks to the top of your list. Then get to work.
Does this help? Let me know in the comments.