Be the master, not the slave, of your to-do list

Be the master, not the slave, of your to-do list

What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.

However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.

Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!

Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.

Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.

Turn your to-do list into a plan

There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!

Change the title

When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.

Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.

This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.

Create more lists

In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).

In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.


Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.

Managing the email avalanche

Managing the email avalanche

1. Make appointments to check email. Trying to keep on top of your emails all day long is a time-suck and the enemy of concentration. Choose your least productive times of day and schedule a meeting with yourself to check and deal with your email (keep high-productivity times for your most important tasks). This might mean half an hour twice a day, or maybe 10 minutes at the top of every hour. Find what works for you and, if possible, close your email window outside of these designated times so you can fully focus on other work.

2. Have a filing system. Different coaches advise different strategies, but I like to file emails away in topic-based folders as I deal with them. This means that all that’s left in my inbox are emails that are still to be handled or which require replies. This helps me keep on top of what’s still left to do as it is completely visible and uncluttered by junk. It also means that I can easily find, sort and archive past messages.

3. Delete ruthlessly. If an email does not need to be kept or handled, delete it – now. Delete unnecessary messages each time you check email, don’t leave them to be cleared out some other time as they will just build up. And if you find yourself repeatedly deleting promotional emails without any interest in their content (special offers from the supermarket you used before you moved house and changed allegiance; vouchers from a maternity-wear shop but you’re no longer pregnant), take the 30 seconds you need to scroll down and unsubscribe now.

Finally tackling a nagging task

Finally tackling a nagging task

1. Identify your “why”. Any task is easier when you have a clear idea of why you are doing it. Finishing my family photo album “because it’s already May and I really should” just doesn’t do it for me. However, remembering the joy we all shared when we showed our kids the album I made last year gives me the push I need. Ask yourself: What value am I honouring by completing this task? How will doing this serve me? What impact is not doing it currently having?

2. Break it down. Very few tasks consist of a single action. Most of the time they can be broken down into a series of smaller, more manageable ones. Maybe you need to clear out and reorganise the kitchen. Even to a decluttering junkie like me, that’s a mammoth undertaking, but if you break it down into steps, it’s easier. Day one, you do a drawer. Day two, another drawer. Day three, you do the crockery cupboard. Then the pots and pans. Doing it bit by bit offers you a regular feeling of accomplishment without requiring you set aside an entire day to get it all done at once. This method also avoids what I call “culling fatigue” – that flagging feeling you get half-way through a big clear out where you lose interest and start making quick and easy instead of good stay/go/donate decisions.

3. Reward yourself! This is the best one. Just because you think you “should have” completed this job ages ago and you’re annoyed you procrastinated so long doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a treat for finally getting it done now. Whether your pat on the back is a run along the river once you tidy the tool shed, a cream cake after you file your taxes, or a home manicure after you’ve cleaned the car, make sure you celebrate and congratulate yourself on your victories and achievements – however small you may consider them.

Letting go of the day and starting the evening mindfully

Letting go of the day and starting the evening mindfully

1. Clear away the day’s detritus. If you’re working from home – perhaps at the kitchen or dining table or at a desk in your living space – it can be hard to switch off when you down tools for the day. However tempting it is to leave the laptop and files out ready to start work again tomorrow, resist. Taking the time to tidy away papers and power down the computer tells your brain to close the door and go into leisure mode. If you have an actual home office, great. You can walk out and literally close the door.

2. Make tomorrow’s to-do list today. Making a list of what needs to get done tomorrow, rolling over today’s unfinished tasks and adding new ones is the only way to end the work day for me. Without this little ritual, everything stays in my mind, and I know I’ll spend at least part of the evening thinking, “ah yes, remember that for tomorrow”. If I’ve already made my plan and written it down, I can relax in the knowledge that I won’t forget anything and tomorrow is, to some extent, already taken care of.

3. Change your clothes. Or take a shower, go for a walk, do some yoga, maybe jog. Do something that creates a clear cut-off point for the day. This is especially true when working from home since we no longer have a place to leave or a commute, during which we can mentally close files and wind down. Even simply taking five minutes to drink a glass of water in the garden or at an open window can be enough to help you step out of work mode and into your evening mindfully, with intention and ease.

Organising your to-do list when it feels out of control

Organising your to-do list when it feels out of control

1. First, separate tasks into categories – personal, professional, family, admin… Then list the tasks, adding a status against each one. I use a star to signify that I have to perform an action. When I am waiting on someone else to complete their part before I can do mine, I write something like “pending Sophie” next to it. Or I might write “email sent, chase on X date”. That way, I know that right now, I can only really attack the starred items. The rest are pending. This automatically makes my scope for action a little less large.

2. Add a red mark of some kind next to tasks that are particularly urgent or time sensitive. If your list is digital, move these to the top. Emergencies notwithstanding, I feel best when I get through at least one item from each list every day. That way I never feel like I’m neglecting work in favour of admin or letting family stuff slip as I tend to clients’ needs. I get a pleasant “keeping all the balls in the air” feeling.

3. Apply the 10-minute rule. If you have any tasks on your list that will take under 10 minutes, do those straight away. Your to-do list just got shorter – and this sense of achievement will motivate you to move on to some of the thornier items. The light feeling I get from crossing off a bunch of small nagging tasks makes it easier to focus on a bigger task that requires time and concentration.