Using Task Lists To Change Your Life

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” – Daniel H. Burnham

A client and I met this morning. She said she was frustrated — that she had begun using a daily task list, as I had suggested, but wasn’t getting some important things done. “‘To-do’ lists just don’t work for me,” she said.

That sounded wrong, so I asked to see what she was doing. As it turned out, she was simply writing a list of “to-do” items on a sheet of paper and crossing them out as she got to them.

Her list, which had perhaps a dozen items on it when she created it, now had 60 or 70 items covering several pages, some of them crossed out, others with notations. Scribbling here. Scratching there.

This client is not the only person I know who has opted for a general “to-do” list over the more complicated ETR task list. Some of the people who are closest to me (I don’t dare even print their initials) do the same. As far as I can see, they are kidding themselves. They have the impression that they are being efficient, but in fact they are only wasting their time recording tasks and objectives that, for the most part, will never get done.

By “modifying” the ETR task-planning program to a general “to-do” list, my client had pretty much doomed herself to failure. The likelihood that she’d make real progress on her most important goals was very low.

Do you use a single, general “to-do” list? If you do, you’re making a big mistake.

Let me explain. In an attempt to “get everything on paper,” my client wrote up a single list of all the things she wanted to do. It included mega-goals (like “become a stronger person”), big objectives (like “earn $80,000 this year”), medium-sized tasks (like “make three new appointments this week”), and mini-tasks (like “return John’s phone call”).

As I mentioned above, her list ran several pages. She worked with it every day, she said — and she had made some progress — but the more she used it, the longer it got. Some important stuff went undone and she was feeling more swamped as time passed.

We went back to the basics:

* To change your life, you need to begin with four Life Goals — usually with a five- to seven-year time limit. These are the biggies like “be a great mom,” “become wealthy,” and so on. Write those down and put them somewhere safe.

* Then create a yearly goal sheet that is directly the result of those Life Goals. Make sure that you have specific, yearly objectives that move you along toward each Life Goal at a realistic and satisfying pace.

* Next, create a monthly task list (directly from your yearly objectives) and a weekly list (directly from your monthly).

Your daily “to-do” list should consist of specific tasks. You should estimate beforehand how long each task will take and you should therefore be able to accomplish 80% or more of those tasks each day.

If your schedule requires you to accommodate interruptions, allow for them on your task list.

Over the years, I’ve found that a typical 10-hour day for me consists of approximately:

* 10 or 12 15-minute tasks

* six or eight 30-minute tasks

* one or two 60-plus-minute tasks

All told, I can usually accomplish no more than 20 or 22 significant tasks each day. There is something about my nature — the emotional, physical, and intellectual capacities I have — that prevents me from doing much more than that.

You may be able to do more, but chances are you won’t. If you do find that your limit is about the same as mine (or even less), you can create your entire daily “to-do” list on one side of a 3-by-5 lined index card. That’s how I do it.

The important point is this: There is a giant difference between using a generalized “to-do” list and following the ETR program for getting things done. If you are doing the former, your chances for changing your life are probably less than 20%. If you take a little extra time and effort to do the latter, your chances are 90% or better.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]