07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

How To Use A To-Do List Effectively

In previous posts, we talked about the multi-tasking challenge, and suggested some ways to substitute multi-goaling instead. Two weeks ago, we began looking at why to-do lists don't work, and then added the disclaimer "unless, of course, they do."

Here are a few thoughts about how to-do lists can work effectively.

A critical distinction to keep in mind is tracking the outcomes you want to produce vs. the actions that will be required to get there. Over the years, I have seen literally thousands of to-do lists that were mishmashes of goals, outcomes, projects and simply action steps.

"Buy bread" could just as easily be sitting next to "draft 2010 budget." At least both of these started with verbs. More often than not, I have seen even more succinct items: "bread," "budget," "sales goal."

Have you ever written something down, come to it later, and then wondered what the heck it means? Come on, tell the truth now. "Call Fred" could have meant something when you wrote it down and now just languishes as a nice concept, but you can't remember 'Fred who?' or about what? Clearly, "Call Fred about XYZ project" will be more helpful.

How about a phone number sitting on the list with no other notation? Oh dear - whose number is this? Do you call the number or just throw it away, hoping they'll call you if it's important.

And, as noted in earlier posts, we've all had those days when you get a ton of "things" done and still fell like you made little to no progress.

Here's some simple advice about how to create a little more order in the mishmash, and how to make certain you are making some kind of meaningful progress.

To start with, do you have a set of clearly articulated personal and professional goals? What are you trying to accomplish in what period of time and why? If not, most of this advice will be pretty meaningless. As I'm fond of saying, "if you don't know where you are going, any road will do."

1) Determine which areas of your personal and professional life are important to you. A couple of months ago, we gave you some tips about how to determine what areas of life are important to you and how to set goals in those areas. Clarify what areas of life are most important to you (Health, Wealth, Personal Growth, Spiritual Growth, Relationships, Family, Career, Service, etc) and set a goal or two for each area.

2) Be clear what it is you are trying to accomplish and why. In earlier posts, we have distinguished between what you want and why you want it. That's a pretty important distinction right there - just look at what you are focused on, why it's important to you, and you may find that some of those goals or tasks just go away because they aren't really all that important.

3) Determine what projects you will have to complete in order to move you toward accomplishing the goal. Make a list of those projects that are important to you personally and professionally.

4) Create separate lists for each key area. Now that you know what's important to you, keep one list of your important goals, another list of projects you will have to complete in order to move you toward each goal, and a third list of action steps you can choose from.

5) Make a list of actions you can take that will move you forward in finishing each project or toward the accomplishment of your key goals. Don't get too obsessive about having to figure out all the steps for each goal or project - at a minimum, all you really need is to know is where you are now and what's the very next step required to get you moving toward that goal or project.

6) Make a little progress each day. As you move through the day, pick off action steps that you can accomplish now, with the resources you have available at the time, and then move to the next one. (One of my big lessons has been to break my list of tasks into like actions - I have a phone list for example, and another for actions that require internet access, and another for errands - no need to be looking at my list of actions to do at home when I'm at work, unless I have to do something during the work day that handles something personal - like make that doctor's appointment for your child.

7) One of my absolute favorite lists is "Mind Like Mush." I use this list for simple tasks that don't require a whole lot of mental acuity and aren't that critical in terms of timing. I turn to this list when my brain is drained. I get to knock of a few items with little risk of screwing them up because I'm not sharp - and an amazing thing happens most of the time - by knocking off a few simple items, I seem to catch a second wind and can then focus on more important tasks.

8) Review and update your lists regularly. Once a week, review your goals list to make certain you are making progress. Similarly, review your projects list to ensure you have a handle on those as well. Lastly, look at your task list to make certain that nothing slipped through the cracks.

There are more lists you can make than these to be sure. For example, I love to have a "Waiting For" list that tracks things other people have to complete before I can take my next step. That's a great one to review each week to make certain I'm not getting in a bind because of someone else.

Don't worry too much about having a perfect list or set of lists, just one that helps. You can fine tune these as experience shows you what you care about most. If you want more specific advice or suggestions, two former partners of mine have great books out there that can help: David Allen's Getting Things Done and Sally McGhee's Take Back Your Life can help you with even more ideas, granularity and integration with computers, PDA's, iPhones, and the like.

Let me know if you have more specific questions and I'll do my best to help.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)