How to write a to-do list that isn’t soul-crushing

May 12, 2020 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Coaching

We’ve all got things to do – usually more things than we can keep track of in our heads. Most people turn to some form of a “to-do list” to make sure that the critical tasks get accomplished. While there are countless systems and approaches to choose from, I think the most important part is not how you organize your to-dos, but rather what you capture as a to-do in the first place.

Here are a few things that I keep off my to-do lists:

Items that you don’t have full control over

I’ve made this mistake as a project manager many times. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of listing your next step on something that is in another person’s control at the moment. For example, I might list “Review Bob’s project plan and share with the team.” I’m assuming that Bob will send me the project plan that day, and with enough time for me to review, edit and distribute it. Since we work with other imperfect humans, this doesn’t always happen.

Instead, I list “Check in with Bob on project plan status”. Once it’s in my inbox I can then create the to-do to edit and distribute. Checking in is 100% in my control, and I can check that off and move on until I have what I need for the next step(s).

Items that you don’t have the required resources to complete

If I don’t have everything I need to accomplish a task, it doesn’t go on my list. Instead, my to-dos are the steps required to get what I need. This often creates hidden to-dos that consume your time without being tracked.

Items that require multiple steps

Early in my career, I found myself writing down my manager’s requests as a to-do. For example, I’d create a task to put together a project plan by the end of the week. It would sit on my list for days, and I’d have to accomplish several tasks to check off this one item. As a result, my list always looked much smaller than it actually was, and I was left feeling like I didn’t accomplish much at the end of a busy day.

I learned to break the deliverable down into specific tasks (e.g. request updates from various stakeholders, consolidate input into a plan, review and edit plan for manager review, etc.). This helped me create more reasonable lists for each day that kept me motivated with a sense of progress throughout the week.

Items that are no longer necessary

You will have trouble finding the energy to complete them. Instead, let interested parties know that the activity is no longer required. There’s nothing more soul-crushing than staying late to finish something that was requested but not necessary.


I hope the lessons of my missteps help you avoid making them yourself. A to-do list can be a wonderful tool. If yours brings you instant anxiety, however, maybe one of these kinds of tasks has slipped through. Your energy is as important as your time, and these types of tasks can drain both. With a little practice, you can start to recognize those potential energy vampires before they strike!

What are your favorite to-do list systems and tools? Any tips for us?

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Jared Simmons

Jared is the founder of Outlast Consulting LLC, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations with strategy, process improvement, and professional development. He is an engineer by training with experience in market research, product development, innovation, management consulting, and strategic planning at P&G, McKinsey, and Coca-Cola.


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