10 No Brainer tips to Manage the Daily ‘To Do’ list

How do you manage your daily ‘to do’ list? Do you finish all the items on the list? Does your ‘to do’ list keep nagging you?  Do many items stay unfinished and get carried over to the next days’ list?

To Do List -- photo courtesy of Courtney Dirks
To Do List — photo courtesy of Courtney Dirks

I confess that on most days I don’t complete everything on my ‘to do’ list.

I get distracted — sometimes by beginning a task that wasn’t on the list but needed doing, sometimes by remembering that I committed myself to something that was time sensitive and needed immediate attention, and often by reading email or researching a topic online.

When my daily list isn’t finished, I carry over the unfinished tasks — which is a frustrating habit.

To change this, I’ve gone back to notes from various time management seminars and developed these basic ‘No Brainer’ tips for getting things done.

Most of these tips won’t be new to postworksavvy readers.  I offer them as a reminder that conquering the ‘to do’ list is possible.

My 10 No Brainer Tips

1.  Keep the list manageable. Most experts suggest keeping the daily ‘to do’ list to 3 items.

Three is impossible for me but I try to keep the list to a maximun of 5 items. To keep from putting too many things on the list, I’ve begun to use a small ( 2.5 x 4 inch) note pad that keeps me from adding more than 3 – 5 items.

2. Set priorities. Identify time sensitive items, ‘must dos’,  ‘should dos’ and ‘nice to dos’.  Hopefully each day has something that is a ‘nice to do’ as a treat.

3. Break items into ‘doable’ chunks that match your energy level. Splitting big projects into separate tasks makes them manageable instead of overwhelming.

I keep a log of bigger projects that is separate from my daily list and try to give myself a time allotment when I’m working on a task that is part of a bigger project.  I work for an hour to complete a small step of a bigger project and then thank myself for the progress I’ve made.

4. Start early. I am not an early riser but when I have to finish something that has a deadline, or if I’m faced with a difficult undertaking, I set an alarm and make a push before my stamina runs down.

5. Start with the hardest, ugliest, most difficult task — and get it out-of-the-way! Finishing the most hellish item on the list often brings a burst of energy and the other items get finished without as much effort.

6. Eliminate distractions and interruptions. I concentrate best when I shut down email and instant messaging.  Since time is mine to manage, I don’t need to answer a ringing phone or respond immediately to texts. When I’m behind a closed-door, it signals that I need a ‘distraction free’ zone so that I can focus my full attention on a task.

7. Set timeframes /deadlines. Parkinson’s law states  “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

By scheduling how much time to spend on a particular task or activity, I gain some control.  For example, I’m trying to limit the time I spend reading emails by allowing only 30 minutes per day for reading and responding to email.

8. Take breaks.  Break time is for enjoyment — a cup of coffee or tea, a snack, a walk or a phone chat with a friend.  I try to take a break when I’ve finished something on my list or when feeling stuck or frustrated.  Sometimes a diversion during a break gives new energy!

9. Reward yourself.  On the days when I finish all or a significant part of my list, I feel on top of the world.  The realization that I’ve spent my day productively brings a feeling of success especially when I’ve accomplished something worthwhile or finished a project that took effort over weeks or months.

The sense of accomplishment is reward enough on most days but sometimes I give myself a special treat — like permission to goof off for the rest of the day.   

10. Make sure items on your list are things that you really want to do  If the items on your list relate with key priorities in your life or big projects that you want to carry out over a period of months, then completion becomes easier because the goal is relevant for your life aspirations.

Sometimes I find myself stuck on an item that never gets done.  When that happens, I re-evaluate it’s meaning in terms of my life.  Often I realize that I don’t really want or need to do these things so I drop them as non-essential.  

 Hopefully these ‘No Brainer’ tips will help all of us to use our days more productively.  Regardless of whether you are retired or still pursuing your career, time management is essential for feelings of well-being and usefulness. There will be fewer guilt pangs!

I’m also resolving to implement these strategies to avoid that anxious, guilty, unproductive feeling at the end of the day!


2 Replies to “10 No Brainer tips to Manage the Daily ‘To Do’ list”

  1. Thankyou so much Jeanette – appreciated. My time management has improved greatly over recent years but still I get somewhat frustrated about there not being enough hours in the day to do all I want/need to do.

    Some years ago I came across Stephen Covey’s ‘First things First’ on time management where he gives the example of filling a bucket with as much as possible. The message is that the big (important) tasks need to be done first, so he places big rocks in first, then smaller and smaller, then sand and finally water. It has become a bit of a family mantra at times …….. “It’s (whatever ) a big rock”. The message is basically that you can’t fit the big rocks in later if the bucket already has a collection of smaller rocks, pebbles or say, sand.

    As I mentioned though – I still struggle at times with my time management and I guess it will continue to challenge us until ‘the final bell rings’!


    1. Hi Janet,
      You must feel proud to have improved your time management. As you so correctly observe, it is likely a struggle that most of us will face until the end of our time!
      I thank you for the reminder of Covey’s bucket of stones and rocks. It’s a great visual. I love the fact that your family has made a fun mantra from his message. By having fun with the important concepts that Covey has outlined, I’m sure that you will continue to achieve success in managing your precious time!
      Be well,

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