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Article: Why TO DO Lists Don't Work

Have you ever taken the time to wonder why your TO DO list seems to grow? Why is it you can't seem to ever accomplish all the things you would like? Have you ever put an entry on your TO DO list that says, ”Spend one hour today determining why my TO DO list continues to be incomplete at the end of each day“?

As a professional organizer I have analyzed how people plan their day. Based on my observations it's no wonder the majority of people carry over TO DOs from today to tomorrow and then the next day and so on. When most people create their TO DO list, they write things down as they think of them with no rhyme or reason to the task at hand. How much more effective would you be if you grouped or bundled items on your TO DO list together by task?

To illustrate, let's take a look at a typical list put together in order by what comes to mind:


  • Drop off dry cleaning
  • Call airline, car rental and hotel
  • E-mail Tony's proposal
  • Get bread, milk and cereal
  • Look up
  • Call restaurant for reservation
  • Go to office supply store
  • Call insurance agent
  • Reply to Bob's e-mail
  • Confirm meeting with David
  • Get direction's to David's office
  • Pay bills
  • Order supplements

Now, let's look at grouping the same list of TO DOs by task:


People to Call

  • Call restaurant for reservations - Thursday at 6:00
  • Call insurance agent - increase deductible
  • Call David - confirm appointment for Wednesday at 3:30
  • Call airline, car rental and hotel - 24th thru 29th
  • Order supplements - 100pk Vitamin C, 60pk Vitamin E


  • E-mail Tony's proposal
  • Reply to Bob's e-mail
  • Look up
  • Get directions to David's office - 101 Main Street
  • Pay bills - mortgage, American Express card, PG&E

Places to Go

  • Cleaners
  • Groceries - bread, milk, cereal
  • Office supply - index card holder, 1-13 index tabs, white and assorted colors of index cards

Just by consolidating your TO DOs by task you have a much clearer picture of what you have to do and where you need to go.

On the second list I have included specific information to help me to be more efficient, such as what are the dates I will be at the conference so I can schedule travel arrangements accordingly.

And, if I were to end up on hold, I could look to my Computer list to see if there was something I could tackle while listening to hold music. For instance, I could get the directions to David's office.

This strategy works even if your TO DO list is scattered about on a bunch of post it notes.   Each post it note should have just one task listed. Arrange post its by task; Calls, Computer, Places, then prioritize each within its category.

Even if you were to save just 10 minutes per day, that's about an hour per week and 52 hours per year or approximately 2 full days.

Now, what can you do with an extra 10 minutes?

At the Office

  • Make 2 to 3 prospecting calls
  • Write down thoughts for future projects
  • Sort through 1 to 3 reference files
  • Complement your staff
  • Plan your next day

At Home

  • Wipe down mirrors and counters
  • Sweep the floor
  • Vacuum 1 to 2 rooms
  • Put on a load of laundry
  • Empty the dishwasher
  • Iron 2 to 3 garments


  • 10 extra minutes of cardio
  • Write 2 thank you cards
  • E-mail a friend
  • Pay 2 to 3 bills (more if done on line)
  • Balance checkbook

If you implement this process and still find you have to transfer several items from today to tomorrow, it is quite possible that you have inappropriate expectations of how long it takes to complete a particular task.

Pay attention to when this happens. Was there an unexpected emergency that you had to handle personally? Were you feeling under the weather? Or, were there just too many things on the list?

If it happens only occasionally, then you are probably being realistic with your time.

If the need to carry over from day to day occurs regularly then you are trying to accomplish too much.

You may need to work through lunch once in a while to keep up. You might need to become an effective delegator, or you may be okay having more on your list so you have an automatic plan B if a client calls needing to reschedule their appointment with you for later in the day.

That ”free“ hour now allows you to focus on those extra things on the list. If a reschedule occurs, you know exactly what you want to get accomplished instead of asking yourself ”Now what should I do“?

This isn't rocket science, but remember, 10 minutes here and there can really add up.

If you try this idea for a month and it still doesn't seem to be working for you, then go back to the item on your TO DO list that says, go to and give me a call or send me an e-mail. I would be glad to help you be more efficient.

If you consistently misplace your TO DO list then keep it really simple with only one item on your list.

1. Contact Teresa at