The majority of working professionals use to-do lists, and yet according to a LinkedIn survey only about 11% of people are actually accomplishing everything on their lists daily. 

Why is that? Are those 11% of people more productive than we are? Are they working faster? Longer hours? 

I’d venture to say the answer is much simpler than that… Their to-do lists shift them into action

If you’re a working professional who can never seem to accomplish everything, we’ve compiled a list of the top mistakes people make while creating and using their to-do lists.

1. You’re spending too much time planning.

Making a to-do list can feel productive in and of itself – you’re consolidating all of the tasks you hope to accomplish in the day into one place. But if you find yourself writing out your list, then re-planning your day, then rewriting your list over and over again – you might be using it as a form of procrastination. 

A good rule of thumb is if you’re spending more than two hours a week planning, it’s too much. You’re not taking action on the stuff you actually need to get done. 

We recommend time boxing your weekly planning. Set aside an hour on Sunday to get aligned on your priorities for the week – and then don’t second guess those plans! 

2. You’re not focusing on the right items on your to-do list. 

The danger of a list is that each item takes up one line – regardless of its level of importance. 

Your list might consist of a mix of any of the following:

  • Low priority, quick tasks
  • Low priority, time consuming tasks
  • High priority, quick tasks
  • High priority, time consuming tasks 

But if you’re not taking the time to mark the items on your list that are of high priority – and carving time out in your calendar for those important tasks – they’re probably not going to get done! 

You’re not wrong for gravitating towards those easier, quicker tasks on your list. Our brains love little victories. (Helloooo, dopamine!) But in the case of the to-do list, you should be aiming for quality over quantity. 

3. You’re scheduling too many tasks into one day.

Have you ever gotten to the end of a work day and thought to yourself: “I just didn’t work fast enough today!” or “there weren’t enough hours in the day today!” 

Let’s get real here: we don’t have enough energy to do EVERYTHING. It’s just not possible.

You’re stacking the odds against yourself when you make a to-do list that’s 60 tasks long that you expect to finish in an 8-hour work day. 

You’ve got to be honest with yourself about what you’re going to get done in one day. Which involves marking out work blocks dedicated to your highest priority tasks. 

We here at the Lifehack Method love the 1:4:5 rule for our daily to-do lists: 

  • 1 super important, high priority task
  • 4 mid-level tasks 
  • 5 low priority, simple tasks 

Anything beyond that, and we find ourselves struggling to get everything done.

4. Your tasks are not actionable. 

Take a moment right now to look at your to-do list. Is everything on the list glaringly clear? Or are there a few items on your list that you’ll need a minute to decipher? 

Here’s an example of non-actionable to-do list: 

  • Grocery store items
  • Bills??
  • Lifehack Bootcamp homework
  • Meeting @ 11 
  • New website homepage layout 

This list is a total mess. It’s a jumbled list of things that need to get done, but have no clear actions that need to be taken. 

Now here’s an actionable list: 

  • Record screencast for web designer giving feedback on current homepage layout 
  • Attend sales training at 11
  • Watch Lifehack Bootcamp Week 3 videos
  • Pay car insurance bill (and activate autopay going forward) 
  • Go to Trader Joe’s on the way home from work

Your to-do list needs to be extremely clear. And the easiest way we’ve found to ensure that is to start each item on the list with a VERB. Notice the list above – record, attend, watch, pay, go – they’re all tasks that will immediately spur you into action.

(We walk you through this idea in greater detail in our Lifehack Planner, which you can grab here!)

5. You haven’t consolidated your to-do list into one place. 

The 168 hours of time you have a week all come from the same place – you. It is dangerous to fracture your to-do list out into personal, work, inbox, and beyond. 

One of the most common examples we see of this is people coming into work with a full task list prepared and thinking: “first, let me check my email.” But then they go into their inbox and get completely overwhelmed by all of the emails they need to respond to. 

Your inbox should not dictate your day, it should merely be an item on your to-do list! Because even if you end your day with hundreds of unread emails, it was probably still a very productive day.

You should be keeping track of everything you need to get done in a day in one place. We recommend a task manager like Asana or Monday.com

6. You’re not looking at your to-do list with a critical eye. 

Many of us – especially those of us who run our own business or hold a management position – feel like we need to do it all. Our to-do lists are miles long, and everything seems to be of equal importance.

Truth is, there are probably items on your to-do list that can be either totally scratched, automated, or outsourced. 

We call this the TACO Method – what can you Terminate, Automate, Consolidate, or Outsource

We recommend doing a once-over of your to-do list. Is there a member of your team who you can pass low-level tasks off to? Is there a service you can hire to help you accomplish a project more swiftly? 

We talk a lot about this method in our membership program, the Lifehack Tribe – so if this idea is resonating with you, definitely check us out! 

7. You’re not closing open loops. 

Let’s say you’ve got an AWESOME to-do list. It’s perfectly consolidated, it’s actionable, it’s short and sweet. 

…But you also have a slough of sticky notes all over your desk; reminders about places you need to be, or small things you need to get done. 

These are open loops – or commitments you’ve made that have not been completed or resolved yet. They float around in your brain, picking away at your energy and attention all day.

If the reminder is for somewhere you need to be, that should be in your calendar. If it’s for something you need to do, it should be in your to-do list. Simple as that! 

Downloading EVERYTHING you need to get done into a task manager – a much more reliable system to keep track of things than your brain – ensures that all open loops are closed, and you can focus on what’s most important. 

 

Finishing your to-do list daily isn’t something that is going to happen by chance. And it’s definitely not out of reach! Incorporating just a few of these things into your planning routine is going to radically change the way you interface with your to-do list.

Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? Let us know how you’re going to level up your to-do list game in the comments below!

Demir & Carey Bentley

Demir and Carey Bentley are the founders of Lifehack Method, WSJ & USA Today bestselling authors, and executive productivity coaches. They've helped thousands of people avoid burnout and soar to their highest level of productivity. Read more about them here.