August 14, 2018

Master your to-do list once and for all

How do people with impossible to-do lists get it all done?

For many professionals on many days, there are not nearly enough hours to plow through every email that needs attention, have every conversation that should occur and get every thing crossed off the to-do list.  I have days like this, too.  It can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The internet is an endless source of ideas for doing more in less time and getting your to-do list under control.  Many are good, some not so much.  The best of these enable you to organize, prioritize, delegate and execute necessary tasks.  These themes are key to getting work done and regaining control over your schedule — and your life.


To-do lists are ubiquitous for a reason.  They work, even for CEOs, many of whom find a simple paper list is most effective.  The key is to keep your list reasonable in length, with fewer than 10 things you must do in a given day.  Rachael Blumenthal writes her list on her hand, limiting its length while keeping it close, while other execs like sticky notes.  To keep his list even closer, Scott Tannen lets his list live in his head, an approach he says drives some around him crazy but works for him.

Regardless of where you put your list, take time to include only the essentials, and organize the items to help ensure you can complete them.  Alex Cavoulacos uses the 1-3-5 rule, which orders tasks into one big to-do, three medium-sized to-dos and five small to-dos.  If you do this, you’ll have an easier time figuring out what to do when.

Be careful of electronic tools that promise to organize your lists — they can work for some purposes, but for a simple to-do list, they can over-complicate your already complicated life.


What’s most important on your list?  What if your daily to-do list became a must-do list, with the rest left for when you have spare time?

Consider Kara Benz’s brain-dump idea:  She has a “master list” where she unloads all her non-urgent to-dos so nothing gets forgotten.  Every time a to-do pops into her head, it goes on the list.  You might want to have a dedicated notebook or Google Doc for this list.

When Benz sits down to create her to-do list for a given day, she refers back to the master list to see which tasks have become pressing and time-sensitive.  Those go on the to-do list for the next day, while the rest waits for another time.

Benz also creates a top-three, or HIT (high-impact tasks), list.  To identify the top three tasks for a given day, she writes, ask yourself:

  • What will have the most impact on your day?
  • What simply must get done?
  • Which task will give you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

Use these questions to identify your HIT list.


For Bedros Keuilian, the recognition that only 5% of what he was doing was actually worth his time was a revelation: “Those were the critical things that I needed to focus on 100% of the time.”  The other 95%?  This is where you delegate.

Delegating isn’t about getting out of a task, it’s simply about recognizing your time is valuable and you can’t do everything, every day.  Don’t have an army of assistants and colleagues?  Matt DeCelles recommends hiring tasks out to a freelancer.

What should you delegate?  The American Management Association suggests handing off:

  • Tasks that are similar to work someone is already doing
  • To-dos with clear protocols and end results
  • Anything repetitive that falls within existing workflows
  • Tasks that allow colleagues or employees to stretch their skills and grow


You’ve organized and prioritized your to-do list, and you’ve delegated what you can.  Now, get to work!

Sallie Krawcheck recommends leveraging the natural rhythms of your body and mind.  If you’re most creative early in the morning, tackle work then.  Dustin Moskovitz likes blocking off longer periods of time on his calendar so he can get things done without interruption.  I’ve found building white space into my calendar effective, too.

Cross items off so you can enjoy a sense of accomplishment as you move through your day.  And start fresh the next day, with any remaining to-dos plus new tasks that need your attention.

Build the habit

At the end of the day, productivity requires discipline but also practice and repetition. You’ll get there. So, here’s something else for your list: Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Some days/weeks/months are better than others.  Tomorrow is another day.

How do you get the job done?

There are as many approaches to knocking tasks off the to-do list as there are professionals in the world.  What works for you?

Last updated August 14, 2018