How to Kill Your To-Do List

Have you gotten good at organizing your tasks in a to-do list, but have trouble actually executing them? You’re not alone.

Getting things on your to-do list actually done is difficult because it’s really a collection of habits most people don’t think about. Today, we’ll look at addressing those issues that stop you from doing things, and the habits needed to overcome those issues.

This post was prompted when reader BJ Thunderstone recently asked a great question:

A lot of productivity systems such as Getting Things Done by David Allen or Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster concern themselves with writing lists of things to do. This skill is easy to learn. But what if the problem isn’t making lists, but executing your plan? What if you write “Get X, Y and Z done” and then you can’t make yourself do any of these things?

I think that many people have a problem not with making to-do lists – but with executing what is written on these lists.

B.J. went on to list some of the reasons he and others have a problem getting things done. Let’s address them one by one.

“I feel resistance when starting work on something.”

First of all, it’s good to analyze your resistance, which is something we don’t often do. Why don’t you want to start on something? Identifying the problem can help lead to the solution.

Having said that, there are a couple of suggestions that could help:

  • Tiny chunk. Tell yourself you only have to do 5 minutes of work on it. That small amount of work is less intimidating.
  • Just start. Once you get going, it’s much easier to keep going. So tell yourself that all you have to do is start. I like to compare this to my philosophy of running: instead of worrying about having to do the whole run, I tell myself that I just have to lace up my shoes and get out the door. After that, it’s really easy. Do the same thing with any task — just fire up your program, and do the first few actions (i.e. start typing). It gets easier after that point.
  • Reward yourself. Don’t let yourself check email (or whatever reward works for you — something that you need to do every day) until you do at least 10 minutes (or 15 or 20, it doesn’t matter) on the task. Set a timer. Once your 10 minutes is up, set another timer for 5 minutes and do email. Then repeat.
  • Get excited about it. This is actually a tip that helps with any of these points. If you are excited about doing something, you will not hesitate to do it. For example, I loved this topic suggestion, and I was excited about writing it. As soon as I had the chance, I sat down to write it and only took one break. But how do you get excited about a task? Try to find something exciting about it. Will it bring you revenue? What can you do with that revenue? Will it bring you new clients, new opportunities, new recognition? If you can’t find anything exciting about a task, consider whether it’s really important or not — and if not, find a way to not do it. Sometimes eliminating (or delegating or delaying) the task is the best option.

“I am terrified of certain tasks, or of working on certain projects.”

There are usually a few reasons those tasks or projects terrify you:

  1. They are too intimidating in size or scope. To combat this, break it down into tinier chunks — actually, just the first tiny chunk (as David Allen tells us to do in GTD). It’s intimidating to do a task like “Create report on X” or “Make a yearly plan for Z”. But if you just need to do the first physical action, which might be, “Call Frank for figures on X” or “Make a list of 10 things we should accomplish this year”, it’s much easier to tackle and less intimidating.
  2. You don’t really know how to do it. If you haven’t done something a million times before, it is unfamiliar and unknown to you. And we are all terrified of that. The solution? First, get more information — learn as much as you can about it. That might require some research on the Internet, or talking to someone who’s done it before, or reading a book, or taking a class. Whatever you need to do, make the unknown become the known. Second, practice it as much as possible. Once you’ve learned how to do something, you need to practice it to become good at it. Don’t practice the whole thing — practice individual skills required to do a task or project, one at a time, until you’re good at those skills. Once you’ve mastered them, it will no longer be terrifying.
  3. You are focusing on negative aspects. You might be focusing on how hard something is, or on all the obstacles. Try looking at the positive aspects instead. Focus on what a great opportunity this project represents … an opportunity to learn, to get better at something, to make more money, to work on a relationship, to gain some long-term recognition, to improve your advancement opportunities. This is similar to the “get excited about it” item in the previous section. If you look at the opportunities, not the problems, you will be less terrified and more likely to want to do it.

“I start, but I get distracted and never finish.”

If you start, you’ve already made a big step towards finishing. Now you just need to work on the distractions. My suggestions won’t be popular, but they work:

  • Small tasks. I mentioned this above, but it’s really important to repeat here. If you are getting distracted, it may be because you are working too long on a single task or project. To remain focused, do only a small task — you are more likely to stay on task. If the task takes a long time, focus on only doing 15-20 minutes of it.
  • Single-task. Don’t allow yourself to do multiple tasks at the same time. Just do the one task before you. If you tend to do email, IM, surf the web, read your RSS feeds, talk on the phone and all of that while doing a task, you will inevitably be distracted from a task. Do one task at a time. If you feel yourself being pulled from the task, stop yourself. And bring yourself back.
  • Unplug. The biggest distractions come from connectivity. Email, feeds, IM, Twitter, phones. Unplug from these connections while you’re working on your single task. This is always an unpopular suggestion, but before you reject it, give it a try. Turn everything off, and try to focus on one task. You’ll get a lot more done, I guarantee you. Right now, I’m writing this post while disconnected from the Internet. It’s much easier to concentrate.
  • Clear your desk. Distractions can come from visual clutter. It can be worth it to clear everything off your desk (see 3 Steps to a Permanently Clear Desk). Also clear your walls and your computer desktop, and only work on one program at a time if possible.
  • Focus. Once your desk is clear and you unplug, and you’re working on that single task, really put all of your concentration on it. Pour your energies into that task, and see if you can get it done quickly. You might even get lost in it, and achieve that highly touted (deservedly so) state of mind known as “flow”.
  • Take breaks. It can help you to focus for a short amount of time on a single task, and use a time to help you focus, and then to take a break. This allows you to reboot your brain. Then, get back to work and focus on the next task.

“I often don’t feel like doing any work at all. The idea of work seems horrible and I never start doing anything.”

I know this feeling well. It plagues us all, and there’s no one good answer. However, here are some suggestions:

  • Groom yourself. If you work from home, take a shower. Often the act of grooming ourselves can make us feel much better.
  • Take a walk. I find that a little walk can get my blood pumping, refresh my mind, and allow me to think about what I really want to do today. It might not be what you need, but it’s worth a shot.
  • Exercise. Similarly, exercise can make you feel great. A jog in the park, a short strength workout, some pilates, or meditation … these things get your mood up and get you feeling productive and happy. Try it out — you might feel more like doing stuff when you’re done.
  • Again, think of opportunities. Think about tomorrow — not tomorrow as in the distant future, but tomorrow as in the day after today. Imagine yourself looking back on today from tomorrow. Will you be glad you laid around? Or would you be happier if you did something, and took advantage of the opportunities in front of you today? It’s useful to think in terms of your future self — because what we do today will open up opportunities and new roads for tomorrow’s us.
  • Baby steps. Don’t think in terms of having to tackle an entire work day, or an entire list of stuff to do. That’s overwhelming. Just think of doing one thing. That’s all you have to do — just that one thing. Make it something small and easy, and ideally something fun and rewarding. Focus on that easy task. Once you get started, you might be more willing to do another thing. Then another.
  • Find fun stuff to do. If you just have boring or unpleasant things to do, you won’t feel like doing them. Instead, change your path for today — see if you can find something that’s fun or exciting, but still moves you forward on a project or goal. That might be what you need to get you jump-started to do other stuff — or you might instead only spend the day doing only fun stuff (as long as it moves you forward — don’t just play solitaire or WoW).
  • Commit thyself. If motivation is your problem, commit yourself to making some progress with a goal or project today, or every day this week — tell all your family and friends, write it in your blog, or join the Zen Habits forum — it’s a great motivator. Then hold yourself accountable by reporting to others what you did today.
  • Rewards. Tell yourself that if you just do that first task, you’ll get a nice ice cream sundae. Or that you can buy a book, or DVD. Whatever your reward, use it to motivate yourself to just get started. Then let the rest flow from there.

“I make a list of things to do the next day.. and on that day, I wake up looking forward to a bad day, full of unpleasant tasks, I don’t feel like doing anything from the list.”

Two things to say here:

  1. Overload. The most probable reason is that you’re overloading yourself. People tend to pile too much on themselves for a single day, overestimating how much they can actually do. Get into the habit of choosing only three Most Important Tasks to do for the day, and do them early in the day (at least two of them before email). If you only have three things to do, it’s not overwhelming. You’ll probably have some smaller things to do later, but write those down under a “batch process” heading, and do those small things all at once near the end of the day.
  2. Fun. The second thing is that you’re loading yourself up with unpleasant tasks. Who wants to face a day of that? Instead, put down tasks that you’ll look forward to doing. Create an exciting to-do list for tomorrow. If you really have nothing important to do that’s enjoyable, it’s possible you’re in the wrong job. Look instead for a job that you’ll actually enjoy. Yes, every job has unpleasant and difficult tasks, but they lead to something rewarding. They support something you get excited about. If you don’t have anything like that in your job, you need to take a closer look at your job — revamp it somehow, or look for another.