to-do lists do not work

Why your to-do lists do not work

Are you writing long to-do lists only to leave them unchecked? Are you finding yourself repeating the same things on multiple lists?  Learn why your to-do lists do not work.

I’m sure you have been there. Totally overwhelmed, you sit down with pen and paper to get all of your must-do items out of your head. Usually, this happens after you have realized that you have forgotten at least a couple of things. They all hit the paper in a totally random order. Despite all this, you feel a sense of ease and regained control just by getting it out of your head.

Your list may look something like this:


  • Project report
  • Car
  • Budget meeting
  • Finish report to boss
  • Dry-cleaner
  • Dinner for Saturday

Right there and then, all these items were so clear to you that you only needed to see these keywords to remember what you was supposed to do.

Let’s say you did this on a Friday and you managed to clear off a couple of items before it was time to take the weekend off. I bet you felt pretty good about yourself on the way home. Then, on Monday morning, you sit down at your desk and you go Huh??? What did I think?


On Monday morning, you sit down at your desk and you go Huh??? What did I think?


I sometimes wonder how the world would look if we all had learned how to make good to-do lists and how to maintain them. I think that we would see a lot more smiles. Simply put: Your to-do lists do not work because you have been doing it all wrong. The good news is that the fix is relatively simple.

to-do lists do not work
If you are struggling with your to-do list, you are not doing it right. (Picture: Stocksnap)

Why your to-do lists do not work

Let’s take a closer look at why your previous to-do lists do not work:

  • You cannot DO a project report.
  • How do you DO a car?
  • What about that party on Saturday?
  • If you sit at work, you do not need to be reminded of the dry cleaner or the dinner on Saturday.


The difference between a project and a to-do item

Herein lays the first problem. You must learn the difference between a project – a wanted outcome, and a single to-do item. In other words, you have to realize the difference between a desired outcome or goal and your next action in order to get there.


You need to start asking the question “What’s the next action?”


A smarter to-do list

This is a smarter version of the same to-do list:



  • Finish project report.
    • Email Jane about customer feedback.
    • See latest MoM for actions.
    • Find the previous report
  • Book service for car (Phone 555 55 555 55)
  • Call for budget meeting.
  • Follow-up with Carl regarding input to report to boss.


  • Find suit for delivery to the dry cleaner.


  • Deliver suit to dry cleaner.
  • Buy meat for 8 people.


Remember to ask yourself the question “What’s the next action?” Always use verbs like talk to, read, find or call. This makes it instantly clear what the next action is.

The @ elements are what is called contexts. A context can be a physical place, like @work or @home – or a tool like @computer or @online. You can also use a context like @boss or @statusmeeting to remember what to discuss with your boss or team the next time you sit eye-to-eye.

Notice that even though the Book service for car item is personal, it’s on your work-list. The reason is that this has to be done during working hours.

Picture: Pexels


Review your lists

You should make it a habit to regularly review your lists. Go trough and mark off completed items and evaluate your projects. This is key to staying on top.



The reason your to-do lists do not work is that you make the lists when it’s too late and that you don’t differ between projects and next actions.

  • Define the wanted outcome and the next action you have to do in order to get one step closer.
  • Use verbs in front of the action.
  • Use contexts.

I promise you: If you do this, you will get more done.

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