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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Never Finishing Your To-Do Lists? 5 Strategies to Try

Most of us have been there: You have eight million things to finish, yet nothing ever seems to get done. You draw up to-do list after to-do list, and you feel like you’re adding more items to the list than you’re checking off. Does this mean you’re just terrible at time management, or is it something else?

Here’s a terrifying (but strangely comforting) fact: A whopping 89% of people don’t regularly finish their daily to-do lists. So, don’t worry, you’re not alone!

Another reason not to worry: There are simple strategies you can employ to get more done and make your to-do list way more manageable. Here’s a roundup of our best to-do list tips—because it’s time to become one of those 11% who actually finish what they set out to do.

1. Take the 1-3-5 Rule Seriously

Over the course of the day, it’s easy to get caught up in the all the little things that come up. Sure, you really wanted to finish that gigantic committee report that’s been weighing on you for weeks, but you just had to fill your to-do list with 17 more things that need your immediate attention.

Or do they?

This is where the 1-3-5 rule comes in handy: By mapping out one big thing, three medium things, and five smaller things you want to get done that day (and, yes, that’s generally the number of tasks you can reasonably get done in a day), you’ll instantly know where your priorities lie (and what can wait). And if prioritizing is in fact your biggest issue when it comes to productivity, this will help you get better at it.

If you work in a job in which things really do come up and need to be dealt with ASAP, leave one of your medium and one or two of your small slots open each day to fill in with the most important immediate needs.

To make this even easier, we’ve created a very simple (and pretty) spreadsheet for you to map out your 1-3-5 items, which you can download here.

2. Use the Eisenhower Method

Alex Honeysett does a great breakdown of the Eisenhower Method, but the gist is that you need to start understanding two things about each one of your to-dos: How important is it, and how urgent is it? The big lesson here is that what is important is not always urgent, and vice versa.

The idea of prioritizing tasks can be daunting (especially if you don’t know where your priorities should lie), so this system creates a very simple grid to base your to-do list on. Look for the things that are both urgent and important, and do those first. Don’t spend your time fretting over things that just appear urgent, and block specific chunks of time in your schedule for ones that are important but don’t need to be done at that very moment. And anything that you determine isn’t urgent or important? Do everything you can to get that off your too-full to-do list.

3. Commit to Only One To-Do List App

A good friend of mine was once complaining to me about how she was never able to get even close to getting her to-do list done, and once she opened up her computer I saw why: She had nine different productivity or to-do list apps going at the same time on her desktop!

Many people make the mistake of thinking that the term “the more the merrier” applies to apps (especially productivity ones), but for the vast majority of people, it doesn’t. You’ll spend half of your day messing with everything, and there’s no way you could learn the ins and outs of every single app.

Instead, take a little time to look through your productivity app options (here’s a good list to get you started) and pick just one to commit to. Download it, read up on the features, and commit a full month to using solely that app for your to-do list needs. You’ll be shocked at how much more you’ll be able to get done when you’re not fidgeting with so many different things all the time.

4. Be Specific About What Each To-Do List Item Entails

You shouldn’t be giving the same amount of weight to completing a report that’ll take you five hours to write and sending an email that just needs two minutes of your time. Instead, break down the steps that each to-do list item entails until they all take about the same time and effort (one expert suggests that each task should take no more than 10 minutes), and think of those as their own to-do list items.

By actually visualizing how much work everything will take, it’s easier to plan the rest of your to-do list and your daily schedule accordingly. While just saying “write committee report” may make it seem easy, plotting out the six steps that come with doing that will enable you to block out the right amount of time and move other to-do list items to a later date if need be.

5. Create a “Done” List

I have a friend who sticks to a classic paper-and-pen to-do list, and one of the reasons she likes it so much is because she loves the look of having items crossed off on a sheet of paper after a long day. There’s sense of accomplishment there that doesn’t exist with a lot of to-do list apps.

Creating a “Done” list (more on that here) not only gives you that same sense of achievement when you’re able to look back on everything you did that day, but if you take a look at the list and realize that you really didn’t accomplish anything, it’s also a great wake-up call that you need to refocus and rethink what you’re spending your day doing.

Keep in mind when trying any new productivity trick that it takes time to adjust, so if things don’t seem to be working out after one day, don’t give up. Give any new to-do list trick at least a month. You’ll be a productivity machine in no time!

Photo of checkmark courtesy of Shutterstock.