Tackling the To-Do List

Right now there are 18 jobs on my to-do list. (That’s the work one – don’t ask about the domestic version. ‘Fix bathroom cupboard’ has been there so long there’s a danger my wife might do it herself.) Make that 23 if you add the personal ones.

I’m constantly astonished at how many people keep their ‘to-do’ list in their head, but on the assumption that there’s at least a spark of rationality in your life and your list is written down, how do you tackle it?

Start at the top and work down? Score a few easy victories by knocking off five or six not-very-important ones at the bottom? Or prove you’ve read the time management textbook by ranking them in order of importance and tackling the most important?

I’ll tell you what I do in a minute, but my first thought is that my list is getting too long. 18 (or 23) is too many. Because you stare at a list like that and think, ‘Oh hell, I’ll never get through that lot today – or tomorrow.’ And occasionally, a sort of paralysis sets in. You look at your list, and there’s so much to do that you don’t do anything. There are so many jobs that none of them stand out as important enough, and somehow, you never get started.

Then suddenly you think, ‘I’ve got to get some jobs crossed out – so I’ll do these few at the bottom.’ The trouble is that they’re not terribly important. ‘Tidy desktop’ isn’t going to advance your business one iota, but sometimes you end up doing it just so you can at least draw a line through something on your list.

For the same reason, I’m not a fan of starting at the top and working down. Unless you wrote your list in order of importance – and most people tend to jot things down as they think of them – ‘top down’ too often means that you’re tidying your desktop again.

It doesn’t matter who you are – or what your job is – work has to be prioritised. If you don’t do that you’re going to be inefficient and if you feel inefficient it’s going to lead to stress – which will make you more inefficient.

But how you do prioritise? I have some questions I ask myself. Is this moving my business forward? Is it going to make me some money? And there’s a third one: is this something I don’t want to do? Because nearly always, the job you don’t want to do is an important one. And what do you always find? It wasn’t as painful as you thought, and it didn’t take as long.

Let me take a step backwards though. There’s something before my ‘to-do’ list, and to me, this is crucial. Point number one, I’m working from a proper strategic plan. So I know what my business goals are for this quarter, this month and this week. And yes, planning takes a little bit of time – but I promise you, for every minute you spend planning, you save ten writing and re-writing ‘today’s jobs’ on a stray piece of A4.

Knowing what I want to achieve lets me come up with a series of action points – things I simply have to do – and they’re the core of my to-do list. Then I can add in the people-specific jobs (phone Tim, sort out Rob’s paperwork) and the list is complete. Nearly.

Because then I rank everything. It’s a tried and trusted method – I use an Important/Urgent matrix. So if it’s high importance/high urgency I get on and do it. If it’s low importance/low urgency I’ll park it until I set aside half a day for admin.

But that occasional half-day for admin is important. They may be low importance/low urgency now, but they won’t stay that way for ever. Virtually every big problem I’ve ever seen in business started life as a small problem that wouldn’t have taken much time to fix.

And one final tip for keeping the ‘to-do’ list under control. Just occasionally, say “no.” We all love to feel wanted, but it’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying “yes” to everything. And besides, three months from now you’ll need the afternoon off to watch the nativity play…



  1. Peter Bowerman · September 17, 2010

    I try and put key to do’s on my white board at home so they stare at me constantly…..

    • Sarah Byrne · September 17, 2010

      I use my daily top three that works for me, the three things I must get done today are…..

  2. Martin Bell · September 20, 2010

    A top 3 daily list has always worked for me, but make sure one of those is a “difficult task” you have been putting off for ages!

    • edreidyork · September 20, 2010

      I like Martin’s idea of always having a “difficult task” on the daily to-do list – thanks for the suggestion!

  3. demhalluk · September 21, 2010

    I make a new list every Monday, even if some of the items are still there from the previous week. These eventually get on my nerves so much that I do them through frustration! I know I need to be more organised – it’s on my to-do list….

  4. Isabelle Greenwood · October 1, 2010

    Love your tips about prioritising, think your views on having a plan are excellent…. not sure about dissing your wife re her diy skills!! Then again, I guess you know her and I don’t!
    Thanks for a great piece.

    • edreidyork · October 4, 2010

      Hi Isabelle – thanks very much for your comment. I agree that I was sailing a bit close to the wind with my wife’s DIY skills. Nothing wrong with some gentle controversy every now and again! Thanks for reading, Ed

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