How to Create a Killer To-Do List That Actually Works

Most people have to-do lists. Today, I need to finish project Z, call my boss, go grocery shopping, and take the dog for a walk. If I get all of these done, I can work on side hustle X and do laundry. 

The problem with conventional to-do lists is simple. They are jam-packed without any prioritization.

In other words, we list our things to do and try to get as much done as possible. And that drains our motivation. We feel like we have to do everything out of fear of consequences. 

In the end, we might finish 60 or 70 percent. We then beat ourselves up for not completing every item.

How to create killer to-do lists 

I suggest a different method. 

Instead of creating to-do lists full of individual tasks, we need to focus on one task and build a minimalist to-do list around it. 

On this basis, here’s how to create a killer to-do list that actually works. 

How to Create a Killer To-Do List That Actually Works
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Focus on what NOT to do

One of the best ways to improve your to-do list is to approach the concept backward. 

Instead of listing tasks that have to get done by the end of the day, ask yourself what you shouldn’t do to become productive

We all have productivity killers that prevent us from getting things done. Whether it’s random entertainment, general distractions, or social media, these obstacles are everywhere. 

As such, before you make an elaborate to-do list, focus on creating a “not-to-do-list.” 

Identify productivity-reducing activities and habits that you perform on autopilot. 

Personally, it was scrolling down Instagram. I never noticed how much time I spent doing that before tracking it. I was shocked to learn that I spent around 40 minutes every day scrolling down Instagram without any reason or benefit. I added that activity to my “not-to-do-list” and gradually cut it out of my daily routine. The productivity gains were immense. 

I progressively found more and more productivity killers in my everyday routine by applying this method. After a while, I had a clear list of things I should stop doing, and I began focusing on these. 

Without trying, I got more done every day. I didn’t need an elaborate to-do list. I just needed to destroy more distractions. 

Find one thing you WANT to do 

One problem with traditional to-do lists is that they compel us to work on something. And no matter if you are a carrot or a stick person, the feeling of having to do something isn’t positive. 

What’s positive is the idea of wanting to do something

In this context, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits writes the following:

I wake up in the morning and decide what One Thing I’m excited about. Then I focus on doing that, pushing everything else aside, clearing distractions, and allowing myself to get caught up in the moment.

The idea is straightforward. You find one task that you actually want to do and draft your to-do list around it. 

That way, you build excitement around a task – and don’t see it as a punishment or chore. 

For example, you might have one exciting project at work. If you don’t at least find one activity like that in your professional life, you’re probably in the wrong field. 

Once you decide on something you want to do today, you put that on your to-do list and nothing else. 

The benefit of this approach is that you’ll passionately work on one essential task. And once you get to that flow state, you’ll have no trouble utilizing that state to work on non-essential to-dos. 

Separate the essential from the accessory

In reality, most of our to-dos are non-essentials. 

They are accessories to the one task that we really want to do. 

Let’s go back to our example of that project you’re passionate about. All of your other to-dos serve one purpose: allowing you to focus on that one essential task.

Once you see those non-essentials – like replying to emails – as accessories, you won’t try to cram your to-do list. You’ll know that they are elements in a larger ensemble. And when the separation between the one essential thing and its accessories is clear, you’ll create a much-improved to-do list. 

What killer to-do lists look like

To conclude, stop drafting a to-do list with a million items that you’ll try to get done today. 

Find one thing that you want to do today. Identify its accessories and define them as such.

To give you an illustration, here’s what your final to-do list could look like: 

  • Write an article for client X (essential). 

Accessories: reply to emails, call client Y, and do grocery shopping. 

Your entire focus will be on the essential – and you won’t even think about the others. If you are passionate about the primary task, you’ll be motivated to complete it. Later, you’ll harness that motivation – helping you get the other things done without thinking twice. 

This article was originally posted on Medium.

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