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Are To-Do Lists Sabotaging Your Success?

To-do lists are an important part of my daily life, even more important than my morning cup of coffee.

They help me organize my busy days as a multitasking work-at-home-mother. They also help me maintain laser sharp focus as I take specific, actionable steps each day to bring goals into reality.

But to-do lists can actually be counterproductive, stifling your productivity. You can become frustrated and overwhelmed making lists and not actually accomplish anything on them.

Here are five to-do list tips to keep your to-do list from sabotaging your success:

Get real. I mean it. One of the biggest culprits of to-do list failure is creating a list that realistically would take closer to six months to complete rather than 24 hours. An overambitious list stifles motivation and increase frustration.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Instead, make a list of the six most-important tasks you want to complete that day (or the next day). Write them down in order of importance, and start from there.

Six before sleep. Writing my list before bed has immensely improved my productivity (and my sleep). Before I made the habit of writing the next day’s to-do list before bed, my mind stubbornly resisted sleep. It wandered and circled in an attempt to cling to all the things I needed to do the next day fearing sleep would wipe them from memory. With a completed to-do list before laying your head down to sleep, your mind will be free to relax knowing it doesn’t have to hang on to a mental list.

Done! Check off every item you put on your list each day. Put a line through it, a checkmark beside it, or your favorite way of marking it as completed. Mark it in green (never red). Green sends the message “Go!” to your subconscious, encouraging you to keep going. After you’ve marked off the tasks you didn’t complete, move them over to your list for the next day.

Chunk it. Part of getting real about your to-do lists is breaking big tasks down into manageable chunks. Let’s use writing a book as an example. If you put “write my book” as one task for the day, you’re in trouble. When you chunk the task of writing your book, you’ll get a list that looks more like this.

  1. Research topics I want to write about
  2. Outline book
  3. Spend 30 minutes writing first chapter from outline

Celebrate! At the end of the day when you’re marking items off your list, pat yourself on the back. An effective to-do list habit will help you achieve goals that without specific, daily action would have remained a dream or a just good idea.

Do you love lists? I’d love to hear your own to-do list tips. What works for you?

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6 Responses to “Are To-Do Lists Sabotaging Your Success?”

  1. Aldous Irving Jimenez-Echegoye March 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Kirsten, you should be doing some coaching on how to organize the disorganized.  This is such a great article!!

    • Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Thanks, Al 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. Paula Rizzo March 18, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    I LOVE lists — it’s amazing how useful they are.  But you are right — they can sabotage you if you don’t use them correctly.  I think you hit something when talking about specificity — you need to be super focused with your task entries or else you leave yourself open for failure. 

    • Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Thanks, Paula. You’re right. It’s easy to get lost spending your day checking off things that don’t really contribute to your overall productivity. There’s a bit of a balancing act when giving yourself positive reinforcement to set yourself up for success. What works best for me is breaking big tasks down into micro-tasks so I can get the satisfaction of checking things off my list and knowing that they are easy tasks that contribute to awesome results.

      Thanks for chiming in, fellow list-lover! 

  3. Aileen March 18, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    As always love to text myself my list !

    • Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Aileen–Great idea! I’m going to start doing that. 🙂

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