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Update the proposal … wipe the counter … send the email … call the pharmacist … answer the text … send the link … order the light bulbs … outline the draft … pack the bag … prepare the marinade … research the information … wash the towels … And that’s just by 10 a.m. right?

Your never-ending to-do list is overwhelming. Keeping it straight is an even greater challenge. Chances are you have a list … or more like many lists, but they might not be working as effectively as they could be. How many planners have you bought over the years? How many systems have you tried? How much time have you spent figuring out a process to keep details from falling through the cracks?

It’s exhausting just thinking about it. Let’s put an end to this confusion and jump into the five most common mistakes you’re making with your to-do list.

Coffee, watch, clips, and planner with to-do list

Tackle your never-ending to-do list with these simple tips.

Why You Can’t Stay On Top of Your To-Do List

Mistake #1: Your lists are all over the place. You’re relying on sticky notes, envelopes, planners, journals, notebooks, and even spreadsheet tabs for different projects. Whatever your combo, it’s simply too many lists in too many locations. You can’t effectively plan your life when parts of it are disjointed. With tasks in different locations, it’s challenging to look at your work and home holistically and plan accurately. You’ll also expend a lot of brainpower, energy, and resources on connecting the dots or reprocessing your lists over and over again.

The Solution: Store all your thoughts in ONE PLACE so you have a full overview of everything going on in your life. I recommend Evernote or Notion, which are digital list-making tools, but a simple Google Doc is a great place to start too. Consider creating two “lists”: one list for personal/home tasks and the other for career/work-related tasks, so all your projects and tasks are in one location.

RELATED: How to Crush Your Clutter Problem and Live a Happy, Guilt-Free Life

Mistake #2: You’re bloating your to-do list with items that don’t belong there, like books to read, marketing ideas, recipes, grocery lists, or camp details. Your to-do list becomes a catch-all list, which is overwhelming and doesn’t help you get clarity or prioritize. There is a place for all that information, but it’s not on your to-do list.

The Solution: The only items that should go on your list are actions. That means only if your task has a clearly defined next step does it belong on your to-do list. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a 12-page list that keeps you drowning in confusion or paralysis. In summary, house all your other thoughts and information elsewhere, and only keep your actions on your to-do list.

Mistake #3: You’re at the project level, not the task level. A task is a single action. A project has multiple actions. There’s a good chance your list is made up of projects that require many actions instead of small, specific tasks. This is why many of your to-dos feel big and overwhelming. Typical items you might have on your list are:

  • financials
  • birthday party
  • volunteer event
  • marketing proposal
  • kitchen renovation

Although these seem like perfectly legitimate tasks, these are actually not tasks at all. They are each in themselves a project. To create an actionable to-do list, break down your projects into very specific tasks. For example, if you find yourself procrastinating or confused about where to begin with “marketing proposal,” break down this whopper of a project into specific tasks, like:

  • gather client information
  • analyze research
  • create a summary
  • outline the proposal
  • get feedback from the team
  • revise the outline

With detailed tasks in front of you, you’ll have far more clarity about where to put your focus. But without them, don’t be surprised if you fall back into your email. It’s the easiest place to divert your attention when you feel overwhelmed. And there are so many better ways to spend your time.

RELATED: 3 Simple Steps To Achieve Your Goals (Especially When You’re Overwhelmed)

Mistake #4: Not adding due dates. Without due dates (i.e. deadlines) around each of your action items, you can’t accurately plan your day or week. This is what gets you pushing up against deadlines or overestimating what you’re going to get done, keeping you in constant reaction mode.

If you want to set yourself up for success, simply add a due date next to each task on your list so you know where to put your focus for that day and for the week. If there’s something on your list that doesn’t have a deadline, like reading articles or organizing a closet, give yourself one and add it to your to-do list.

Mistake #5: You’re not estimating your time for each task. When you make estimating your time a practice, it forces you to look at your calendar and plan. If you don’t, you overestimate what you think you can do and end up feeling like a failure. Maybe you can relate to this scenario. You think you can cross off 10 tasks over the day. By that evening you’ve only completed six, and instead of focusing on what you got done, you dwell on what you didn’t.

Only when you add in and plan the time to complete each task do you realize how many you can actually get through. This leads to an entirely different outcome of your day (think success instead of failure) and also allows you to plan accurately for the next day.

The bottom line is this: You can absolutely be in the driver’s seat of your time simply by mastering the art and science of your to-do list. Enlist these small habits to be large and in charge of your day.

Mridu is the founder of Life Is Organized and is a Productivity Coach who helps women wake up with a plan. Get FREE resources on squashing distractions, stress, and confusion HERE.


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