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Your Daily To-Do List is Failing. Here Are 3 Strategies To Make It Better & Improve Productivity.

Your Daily To-Do List is Failing. Here Are 3 Strategies To Make It Better & Improve Productivity.

By Andrew McDermott

For the most part, to-do lists aren’t working.

When your daily to-do list works, it feels fantastic. It’s incredibly satisfying to check off a completed item. You feel like a productivity machine.

That’s not how it usually works though, is it?

For many of us it’s actually the opposite. Our everyday, daily to-do lists aren’t working. Instead of focusing your attention on the tasks that matter most, they increase your stress.

Why don’t most daily to-do lists work? They show how you’re failing.

Productivity experts tell us to focus on the very next thing. But all you can see is the huge mountain of work waiting for you. The overdue work you should have finished already.

Your to-do list has made work miserable and discouraging.

Believe it or not, this stress, discouragement and fear is actually a good thing. It never feels that way, I know.

Here’s why it’s a good thing. It shows you that your daily to-do lists, in their current form, aren’t working for you. Seems incredibly obvious.

Why do so many of us continue to struggle with a to-do list that isn’t working for us? Why do we punish ourselves with a system that only increases our stress and fear levels?

We punish ourselves because we don’t have a daily to-do list alternative.

When we finally realize our to-do lists aren’t working for us, we try to fix them. Here’s where we make our biggest mistake.

We focus almost 100% on the app. 

“This app doesn’t have what we need, it can’t do what we want.” We’re trying to solve our problem the best way we know how. So we search for an app that can solve our problems.

And you know what?

The app isn’t the problem. It’s our to-dos. When these problems creep in it’s a signal. A sign that our to-do framework is incompatible with the way we work.

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Are you incompatible with daily to-do lists?

When to-do lists are setup poorly, they create problems. This conflict maximizes your stress and complexity, making it more difficult for you to accomplish your goals.

What do I mean “setup poorly?” What kind of problems are we talking about here?

  1. Too many to-dos. Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar found our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It actually increases our negative emotions and cognitive load, making it harder to get our work done.
  2. Time/complexity mismatch. What happens when some tasks take two or three minutes to finish while others take two or three hours? It’s simple, we focus our time and attention on the shorter tasks, so we get a quick win and the psychological reward of crossing an item off our list. The downside? Longer tasks take a very long time to finish.
  3. Shifting priorities. Circumstance often demands that we focus our time and attention on the “urgent” to-dos. That’s the problem, it seems there’s never a shortage of urgent to-dos. Naturally this means standard to-dos are neglected – until they become urgent themselves. Teams spend their time running from one urgent fire to the next as they scramble to keep up.
  4. Missing context. Do you have everything you need to complete this to-do? DO you need more time, resources or feedback than you currently have? Does this to-do require more than you’re able to give (for any reason) at this point?

Ignore these factors and you’re far less likely to complete your to-do list.

Your daily to-do list won’t be effective without…


What does that mean for you? You’ll need to define your to-do list clearly and completely if you want clarity.

Clarity drives success.

This sounds absolutely tedious. All you wanted to do was create a simple to-do list you could use to get work done. Now it sounds like I’m telling you to create a book report for each to-do item.

Who has that kind of time?!

When I mention defining their daily to-do list, many people assume they have to write it down. They assume they’ll have to write an essay for each item.

That’s not what I’m suggesting.

Here’s what I am suggesting. That you try a new approach. Something different.

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Here are 3 daily to-do list strategies that have been proven to help you prioritize your task list and be more productive.

  1. The Ivy Lee Method

James Clear shares a story about Ivy Lee, a highly respected productivity consultant. Lee, worked with Charles Schwab to increase productivity.

Schwab made a straightforward request to Lee. “Show me a way to get more things done.”

Lee met with Schwab’s executives for 15 minutes, explaining his simple method for peak productivity. It goes like this:

  1. At the end of your day, write down the six most important tasks you need to finish tomorrow.
  2. Rank these six tasks in order of importance. Be brutally honest with yourself. Which task is most urgent? That becomes priority #1.
  3. When you start work, focus on to-do item #1 first. Don’t do anything else until that to-do item is finished. Give it your complete and undivided attention (don’t work on any of the other items on your list until #1 is complete)
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the rest of your list. Move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process everyday.

Here’s what makes the Ivy Lee Method so powerful and difficult. It requires discipline.

It takes discipline because…

  • It forces you to make tough decisions
  • You’re required to prioritize
  • You need discipline to stick with six to-dos everyday
  • You’ll need to manage those who load you down with work

Remember the research? Our brains can only handle six or seven to-dos before becoming overwhelmed. That’s the beauty of the Ivy Lee method. It’s a to-do list that maximizes productivity and minimizes stress.

How do we know it works?

Charles Schwab decided to pay Ivy Lee $25,000 ($400,000 in 2017 dollars) for his work.

2. Delete your daily to-do list. Use tiny habits instead.

Kevin Kruse, a Forbes contributor, has interviewed more than 200 billionaires, Olympians, straight A students and entrepreneurs.

He asks each and every one of them a simple question. What’s your best time management and productivity advice.

Not one of them has ever mentioned a to-do list.

Does this mean no successful person uses a to-do list to get things done?

Absolutely not.

Here’s what it does mean. Successful people are focused on outcomes. They’re focused on achieving results. It means they’re focused on managing their time.

Okay, how do these successful A players manage their time?

They create tiny habits for recurring to-dos and they use their calendar to schedule non-recurring items. Yep, this is the method popularized by BJ Fogg.

Ultra productive people manage their time, some of them, minute-by-minute. But they do their best to avoid the to-dos.

Don’t believe me? Take a look.

Fine, they don’t use to-dos. Does this mean you can’t or that they don’t work?


You can use to-dos. If you’re focused on eliminating waste. What does that mean?

  1. Don’t add daily to-dos or recurring tasks to your to-do list, create a tiny habit instead.
  2. Dealing with highly irregular tasks that are time sensitive and focused around a particular circumstance or event? Add it to your calendar instead.

That’s the problem. Many people have a bad habit. They add everything to their to-do list – events, habits, daily tasks, time sensitive details. It’s no wonder they’re overwhelmed.

Delete your extra to-dos. Create a routine, add tasks and events to your calendar, work with tiny habits.

Here’s the beautiful part.

When you mercilessly delete excess to-dos, you create clarity. The to-do items leftover are genuine to-dos.

There’s no waste, no vague to-dos or events masquerading as to-do items. There’s clarity, you’re focused on the tasks that actually matter.

  1. The time management matrix

Stephen Covey popularized the time management matrix in his book, First Things First.

It’s a simple concept that’s often difficult to follow.

It’s one of the secret ingredients that separates highly productive people from everyone else.

These high performers are able to quickly prioritize their work, getting things done quickly.

Here’s what makes the time management matrix so important.

Your crises, the urgent problems you have to deal with on a daily basis, shrink. You may still end up in pointless meetings, but that doesn’t mean you need to instantly respond to each and every email, IM, phone call or request that comes in.


You have a framework you can use to manage your to-dos.

With the right approach, you’ll be able to decrease the stress and tension in your day-to-day work, dramatically, while keeping an eye on the bigger management of all your projects.