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.

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.

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.

Activity monogamy or, the joys of doing one thing at a time

Activity monogamy or, the joys of doing one thing at a time

When multi-tasking leads to half-hearting, it’s time to remember the old adage – less is more.

I have a confession to make: I am a cheater. A while back, I was spending some time with Robert Ludlum and – I don’t know what I was doing – I played around behind his back with… Charles Dickens. And I can’t say I was thinking about Bob the whole time. I really can’t. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I then cheated on Charlie with Alain de Botton. And then, to add insult to injury, I added Jasper Fforde and Dan Brown to my little literary… what, erm, six people – does that make a love hexagon? Yes, I had no fewer than five books on the go at one time.

Read me! Read me! Read me, now!

While I love skipping from tea with Pip and Miss Havisham to baddie-chasing with Jason Bourne, philosophising with Alain, feeding marshmallows to dodos with Thursday Next, and cracking codes with Robert Langdon, the effort of keeping up with all the characters and the plots was somewhat exhausting. I honestly don’t know how bigamists and love rats do it. I actually turned reading, one of the purest and simplest of pleasures, into a source of stress. The books became obligations and things to put on my ‘to do’ list. When I picked up one to read, I was faced with the feeling of “but I’ve got so much to get through, where do I start?”

The urge to double- or triple-up extends to most areas of my life (for my beloved, who will read this, I assure you I’m talking only about activities and not beloveds – of those I’ve only one). I have always been a rather enthusiastic multi-tasker. I like knowing that dinner’s in the oven as the washing machine is going, and I’m finishing off the ironing while also catching up on the latest shenanigans on Grey’s Anatomy. It makes me feel that time is being optimised. Equally, I file emails while on the phone at work; I make lists on the tube, I return phone calls while walking home from my yoga class. In all these situations, I feel like I’m making good use of what would otherwise be ‘dead time’.

Fidelity feels good!

But recently, I made the decision to streamline and simplify my life, and that involved reading just one book at a time. Novel, huh? Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. I forced myself to eschew all new tomes until I had finished one and, do you know what? – I loved it. I enjoyed the book I was reading so much more. I got through it faster (so I didn’t lose interest) and could remember the intricacies of the plot (so I didn’t spend time leafing back and trying to remember why the brass key was important and what family Lord Thingy belonged to). Most importantly, I rediscovered the joy of giving my full attention to just one thing and losing myself in it.

The experiment worked so well, I’m now extending it to other areas of my life. The bid to streamline, which started with unsubscribing from all those e-newsletters I regularly delete without reading and paring down my belongings, has turned into a resolution to do one thing at a time. If I’m on the phone, I’m on the phone. I’m not sorting the darks from the lights in the washing bin or straightening out my sock drawer. If I’m writing a report at work, I no longer stop every two minutes to read emails as soon as that nasty little blue envelope appears. The result? I actually enjoy each activity more, and I get things done faster and better. I’m also calmer, no longer frazzled by keeping an eye on several boiling pots, and – here’s the kicker – I find I have more time. The next step is obviously to cut back on the sheer number of things I try to do each day. That’ll be a challenge, but worthwhile, I suspect, since it turns out less really can be more.

Originally published on Running in Heels.