A Secret to Making Your To-Do List

To-do list on a blackboard background

Once upon a time, as the consulting legend goes, a young man named Ivy Lee was asked to help an American captain of industry be more productive.

According to Earl Nightingale, the author who made the story famous, young Lee delivered a simple solution. He found most employees wasted their time in the morning because they didn’t know what to do first.

Lee, who went on to become a well-known Public Relations expert, suggested, “That before people went home in the evening, they needed to write down what was to be done tomorrow in priority order.”

The Captain of Industry was skeptical that this would solve the productivity woes of his workers, but as the Nightingale version of the legend goes, “Lee reportedly was so confident that it would work that he told the millionaire boss to try it for a month and to send him a check for whatever he thought the idea was worth.”

The story ends well for Mr. Lee. According to Nightingale, “The results were so dramatic that the millionaire boss sent Lee a check for $25,000.” A handsome sum over 100 years ago, to be sure, for such a simple recommendation.

This is how the legend of the “to-do” list was born. Undoubtedly you’ve been using one for years.

But, there’s a missing link that stops your to-do list from actually working…

There’s one more secret to making an effective to-do list. When you add this to your daily preparation, you’ll be more likely to stick to your plan so that you eliminate wasted time and are more efficient and productive.

However, before the missing link is revealed, you’re going to get an inside look at how I put together my to-do list and plan my workday for maximum results. If you’ve read any of my articles on this topic before, you’ll notice that my workday looks a little different than what I’ve described in the past. And that’s normal.

Your plans will always evolve and become better as you learn more and as you become more disciplined. You’ll also choose a better to-do list and daily plan once you identify the activities that are most important to you and start slotting them into your magic time.

Over on the Early to Rise Facebook page I receive a lot of questions on how I create my to-do list. Frankly, I find it to be a somewhat bizarre question. That’s one of the last things anyone should struggle with.

You need to have a template. Mine looks like this:

  • 4-$$$
  • 8-Selling
  • 11-RQVP
  • 1-Email (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) or Interviews (Tuesday, Thursday)
  • 5-Journaling: Gratitude and Big Thinking

I know, I know. So let me explain how this day breaks down.

The 4-$$$ stands for the most important task of the day. If you’ve read my 12 rules, you know I get up and commit 60 minutes to writing before anything else each morning. That writing fits in my $$$ time. The 4, of course, stands for 4:00 AM. This is my magic time, and I’ll get three times as much done in this hour than I would at any other time of the day. I’m a morning person and there’s no way around that.

But while I truly believe we can all get more done getting up earlier, the missing link in a to-do list is not working at 4:00 AM. If that sounds out of the question, don’t worry. There’s still something much more important when scheduling your day.

At 8:00 AM, after meditation, a dog walk, and breakfast, I move on to writing sales copy or promotional emails for my Turbulence Training fitness business. I do this six days per week, including Saturdays. On Sundays I take the day off and avoid using my computer and even my phone.

The remainder of the morning is open for exercise, inspirational reading and writing, and going through my R-Q-V-P. This acronym refers to Reading my daily documents, finding Quotes for my articles and our social media pages, Visualizing my next day, and putting together a specific Plan for the next day’s writing session.

The Planning component is a key element so that my subconscious brain knows what to work on overnight and so that I’m able to get up and go immediately to an organized writing session in my magic time. No matter when you start working on the most important projects in your day, make sure that you are prepared to dive right into the project without wasting your magic time with preparation or procrastination.

After lunch, when I’m at my least creative, I check my email or conduct interviews to promote my businesses or to learn from other experts (such as my mentor, Mark Ford, or fitness guru, Todd Durkin). I also business partners, review reports, and write training program for our fitness clients. The afternoon ends with another dog walk before I return to for my 5:00 PM journal session.

There are two short tasks to end the day. First, I write in my ETR Gratitude journal. Second, I use a little notebook and do the Big Thinking exercise I learned from James Altucher. This is where I let my mind run free and write down ten big ideas that can improve my business and my life. Some of these are crazy ideas. It’s a fun game to play. It also allows me to dump out all of the ideas in my head so I can relax for a couple of hours without thinking about work. Then I put my books away and shut down my computer. It gets turned off at 6:00 PM every night.

That’s how I design my workday. While it looks like fourteen hours, the actual work component is approximately nine hours per day, broken up with exercise time, dog walks, meals, and reading breaks.

What really matters is the work that gets done before 8:00 AM in the $$$ slot.

Now here’s where the missing link comes in. In order to complete the necessary daily magic by 8:00 AM, I must incorporate a strategic secret into my daily to-do list.

It’s a method I first learned from Dan Kennedy, the grumpy old direct marketing icon who taught me most of what I know about time management. Kennedy says that where most people go wrong is that they leave their to-do list tasks open-ended. The secret, he advises, is to set a time limit on each task.

For example, take this article. There are two ways to go about writing this article. The first is to sit down and write it without any regard for the clock other than the starting time. Without proper preparation, I could sit here and work on it for three hours, trying to perfect a phrase or look up words in my thesaurus to make me sound smarter.

The second way to write it is with a deadline. For this article, it had a deadline of 5:15 AM. That’s the secret of the to-do list. That’s the missing link in most people’s lives. They put together an ambitious plan of projects to complete each day, but with no regard to the time. But a to-do list without time limits is incomplete.

Your task now is to make sure that your daily to-do list not only comes with priority projects put in the proper place (i.e. aligning your toughest tasks with your magic time) but also with a deadline for each activity. This will keep you on track. Otherwise your to-do list will suffer the same fate as most corporate meetings. You’ll run far over the time you expected to commit to it, and it will destroy your productivity plans and the rest of your workday.

If you incorporate the missing link, you’ll find yourself getting more done and ending the day with less stress.

The daily to-do list deadline is the secret. Add it to your planning today, and reap the benefits tomorrow.

Sound good? Alright, it’s 5:15 AM. We’re right on time for getting this project done. On to the next one and another day of elite personal productivity that makes people wonder, “How do you get so much done?”

If you want to join me in exhibiting this superpower, add the missing link to your to-do list today.

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  • Adzenda

    Great article. Makes me understand more the importance and use of to-do-list

  • Sylvia

    Thank you. I always get frustrated with to-do lists because as you stated, they can go on forever. This sounds like such a simple way to make it work. Thanks again.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Happy to help, thanks Sylvia.

  • I’ve stopped making to-do lists because they got overwhelming for me.

    I think with this new addition of deadlines.

    It will become manageable again.

  • GoSparky

    So what happens when it’s 5:15 and your article isn’t done yet?
    You just let it get published as is?

    • Craig Ballantyne

      It’s always done in one way or another. It might be longer and needing editing, but it’s done. It gets passed off to editors to polish it up, if possible.

  • Colin

    Hi Craig,

    I enjoyed reading your article – it sounds like a possible answer to my cronic procrastination and drifting through the day. When you have time I’d be really interested in hearing the “mechanics” of how you plan your day. Do you use paper or do you do it on a computer. If you use paper do you use a preprinted template or just write one out by hand each night.

    Regards … Colin

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Hi Colin, there’s nothing more to it than this article really. I just fill in the spots on the list. Paper or computer, it doesn’t matter. Just make that to do list and get it done.
      Craig

  • Nate

    I love when successful people like yourself post their schedules and show their every day habits, thx for that.

    I’ve been reluctant to post in my business anything to personal. Hopefully you have a different stance on this issue.

    As a guy in his mid-twenties, i love going out on dates. Meeting people/dates/romantic time typically happens rather at the late/nightly hours. So i wonder how you take care of this part of your life and integrate it.

    Thx

    • Craig Ballantyne

      A steady girlfriend that understands and accepts eccentricities is the key.