Many of us get caught in the trap of getting busy, but not really being productive. We may be crossing a lot off on our list, but we end up doing busy work instead of the work that really moves us toward our goals.

Or we put so much on our list that we just get overwhelmed and hardly ever actually look it it – or delay in doing so.


So what do we do?

There is no one “right” way to do a to-do list. Many successful and effective people do their to-do lists and task lists differently.

Some use apps, some use excel, some use paper. You just have to do a system that works for you. But whichever way you choose, here are some general tips to being more effective.


1. Prioritize

Prioritize your task. Put first things first. In his book Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy discusses the importance of doing the most important, hardest task first – to eat that frog. If you do the hardest thing first, everything else in the day seems easier. It doesn’t get any easier waiting to do it – it only gets worse.

There are times when you may not be able to do your most important things immediately, but they need to be near the top of your list.

People prioritize differently – some may star items, or number them, or put letters – whatever works for you, just do it.


2. Break up your to-do list

If your list is so large it overwhelms you, break it up. Make it into smaller portions.

Categorize it – by task type, importance, or even use the Covey time management matrix (I often refer to it as the Covey square) to organize your tasks. (The Covey square comes from Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

Covey's 4 square time management matrix

You may even want to put the tasks you want to do that day on a separate list rather than mixed with everything else, that way it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Some people choose 2,3, or even 5 most important tasks to focus on during the day, and that’s it. They make sure they get those things done – anything else is just a bonus.

Find what works for you.


3. Delete or Delegate

If a task is in Quadrant 4, get rid of it. Just trash it. If you can’t trash it or Quadrant 3 tasks – if possible, delegate them.

If there is a task that doesn’t use your time most effectively, that isn’t something that you really should be doing, that doesn’t move you toward your goal, that keeps you from doing your most important tasks, as much as possible, delete or delegate.

This will allow you to truly focus on what’s truly important.


4. Plan the night or day before

Sometimes we waste so much time when we get to our desks in the morning, trying to decide what we need to do, what’s important – and it becomes easy to delay and waste time. For many, the morning time is their most effective time- why waste it trying to “figure out” what you need to do?

If you plan your list the day or night before, what you are going to do for that day, you can quickly get in the flow and get your work done. It could also help you keep from getting overwhelmed by looking at a large list in the morning and starting off discouraged.


5. Wait to check your email, voicemail, socials, etc. 

Email, voicemail, socials and the like can easily be distracting and can easily entangle us in the unimportant things.

If possible, it may be helpful if you get some of your most important things done first in the morning before you ever touch or open your email or check voicemail or the like. That way if you do get caught up in email emergencies, you already have some of your important stuff done for that day.


6. Constantly check the Covey time management matrix (the 4 squares)

As you go along your day – ask yourself: “What quadrant am I in?” If you constantly find yourself in III and IV, you know you need to make adjustments.


It may take time, just keep working at it

It may take time for you to figure out your flow, what works best for you. That’s ok. And don’t beat yourself up if you keep finding yourself in Quadrant III or IV. Just work at doing better next time. You should be proud that you are at least recognizing it and working toward fixing it.

As a side note, there is a free online app that I  have used before and find effective. It’s called Weekplan (I’m not an affiliate – I just found it useful). It’s basically a drag and drop to-do list/week planner. The author of this app is a fan of the 4 quadrants, so the app is based on it – you can actually put your tasks in the different quadrants if desired.

Do you have any other tips for an effective list? Let us know!