8 To-Do List Mistakes You Must Avoid
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You may have read countless blog posts, magazine articles, and books about to-do lists. They certainly exist, but many of the articles you read often present them as the magic tools necessary for enjoying consistent productivity. They could be that magic tool but, the thing is, merely making a to-do list is not enough.

Many people unknowingly make mistakes that limit the overall effectiveness of their to-do lists. The blunders may even hinder their potential.

Below, we’ll look at some of the most common mistakes associated with to-do lists. You’ll also get solutions to these mistakes, so you can remedy your ways if some of these errors sound familiar.

1. Listing Tasks Without Estimated Times

Many of the to-do lists you’ve likely made only included things to do without timeframes. Writing down tasks alone may seem like the fastest approach. However, you also need to estimate the probable time for completion This App Combines To-Do List, Calendar, and Pomodoro Timer in One This App Combines To-Do List, Calendar, and Pomodoro Timer in One You can think of this beautiful productivity app as Todoist, Google Calendar, and Toggl all wrapped up together. Read More . If you don’t, the task list could seem overwhelming. It might genuinely include more than you can tackle, too.

Also, time estimates hold you accountable and help you pinpoint responsibilities that take much longer than they should.

Try using a time tracker The Best Time Tracking App for Android, iOS, and Desktop The Best Time Tracking App for Android, iOS, and Desktop We show you how time tracking can benefit you or your team, what to look for in time tracking software, and the best cross-platform application we could find for the job. Read More for a typical week and see how long all your tasks take. Then, make a to-do list that reflects that information. Did you spend an hour organizing your inbox on a Monday morning? If so, consider using a dedicated tool that cuts down on time required.

2. Switching Between List-Making Methods

When thinking about ways to write to-do lists, you can pick between using a pen and paper or going digital 8 Super Simple To-Do List Tools to Keep You Focused 8 Super Simple To-Do List Tools to Keep You Focused A to-do list is the simplest productivity system. These eight minimalist to-do list tools are for tracking your daily tasks without the fuss. Read More .

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Image Credit: Estée Janssens via Unsplash

However, some people can’t make up their minds. They use traditional means for a few days, then download another list-creation app to their smartphones. Although this is a common practice that often continues indefinitely, it also disrupts productivity. By not sticking to one option, you can’t get into an efficient routine.

Decide to use one way of composing a to-do list for at least a month. During that time, write down all the pros and cons you notice. At the end of the period, review the positive and negative characteristics. Then, if necessary, repeat the month-long process with the other option for making lists.

Ideally, you’ll get the swing of things the first time around and realize you don’t need to switch. However, even if you spend a month each with digital and old-fashioned methods, at least that’s long enough to ultimately make an educated choice.

3. Organizing Tasks Starting With the Quickest

Like many people, you may be an achievement-oriented individual. The more you complete tasks, the more you feel motivated to continue working hard. Maybe that’s why you began using to-do lists. In that case, it seems smart to arrange the entries on your to-do list by the shortest to longest estimated times.

What procrastination looks like… 🤣😂😆

Posted by Make Use Of on Tuesday, December 19, 2017

By using that technique, you can get your confidence up by working on less time-intensive stuff first, then gradually transition into things that take more of your time. However, this practice is another one to avoid. It could cause you to prioritize duties 5 Critical Mistakes To Avoid When Setting Goals 5 Critical Mistakes To Avoid When Setting Goals Goal setting is a great way to cut down on procrastination and boost productivity. If you don’t have goals, you don’t have direction. Without direction, it’s easy for you to feel lost and confused. Fortunately,... Read More that don’t significantly impact what you aim to achieve.

Instead, figure out which tasks are the most beneficial to yourself, your company, your job, and so on. Then, group those things on your to-do list. By taking that approach, you’re likely using your time wisely. At the day’s end, you can look back on accomplishments and feel you spent your hours well.

4. Making Your List the Day You Need It

Maybe you’re in the habit of writing your to-do list at the start of a day. However, by doing that, you waste time you could devote to other tasks.

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Collective evidence highlights the merits of writing a to-do list the night before.

Some experts suggest thinking of the three most important to-do list items then. It’ll help you set expectations for the day ahead, and you can get straight to work instead of making a to-do list when you wake up.

5. Avoiding Making Changes

Life includes many unexpected elements, and some of them may temporarily impact your productivity. Did you wake up with a migraine headache this morning? Is your infant fussing while you work from home because her usual caregiver is out of town? Perhaps you recently started working for a new company or accepted a new role. All of these things could break your stride, so they require a flexible mindset.

If you didn’t incorporate flexibility into your to-do list, too, that’s a problem that leads to frustration. Rather than creating a rigid set of responsibilities, build a rolling task list How to Turn Gmail Into a To-Do List and Calendar With a Chrome Extension How to Turn Gmail Into a To-Do List and Calendar With a Chrome Extension Looking for an easier way to connect your emails or to-dos to your calendar? Look no further than Handle for Gmail. This Google Chrome extension will fit into your routine and boost your productivity. Read More .

It allows for re-prioritizing things as your day fluctuates. Plus, as the name suggests, incomplete items roll over to the next day.

6. Treating Tasks and Projects the Same Way

While crafting their to-do lists, people often forget that tasks and projects are very different. You can include both, but you must realize that projects take up more time than tasks. You can finish a task in a single session. Projects, on the other hand, include multiple tasks 5 Unique Trello Tips for Project Management 5 Unique Trello Tips for Project Management Trello is a Kanban-inspired tool for task and project management. We'll show you five lesser-known features to save time when managing projects with Trello. Read More . They need special consideration as you plan the time and effort necessary for them.

If you view tasks and projects identically, it’ll seem like you continuously miss the mark. Consider using colors or text-based identifiers to make tasks and projects more distinctive. And, don’t assume you’ll get an entire project completed in a day. It’s better to recognize the progressive nature of projects. Assign yourself tasks that move them closer to completion day by day instead.

7. Lacking Specificity in To-Do Items

A poorly-written to-do list may hurt your productivity more than not having one at all. If your list items are too vague, you won’t make the best use of available time.

Maybe you’re a professional or amateur blogger ready to expand your reach. Initially, you might want to write an entry that says, “Publish new posts.” But that’s not specific enough. A task reading “Publish at least five posts” maintains focus.

8. Packing Your List With Unachievable Objectives

If you find motivation through challenges, it may seem sensible to fill your to-do list with lofty goals. You might reason that you’re a high-achieving individual and not want to make your duties too easy. However, you could also quickly shoot to the other end of the spectrum: extreme difficulty.

To avoid this pitfall, set SMART goals to maximize productivity SmartGoals for Android Helps You Set Realistic Goals, Measure and Attain Them SmartGoals for Android Helps You Set Realistic Goals, Measure and Attain Them While your smartphone can't make your dreams come true, it may be able to help. Read More . Wondering how it works?

  • Specific: Write your goal using simple language that clearly defines your actions.
  • Measurable: You must have tangible evidence that shows whether you hit your target.
  • Achievable: Make your goal achievable. It’s okay if it takes you out of your comfort zone. However, you need the skills and resources required for success.
  • Results: It means you should write goals with overall outcomes in mind Better Than Smart Goals: Stop Procrastinating With Micro Goals Better Than Smart Goals: Stop Procrastinating With Micro Goals Your procrastination may be caused by poor goal management. We'll show you how micro goals can trick your mind into actually being more productive. Read More , not individual activities.
  • Timeframe: Set a timeframe that causes a sense of urgency and limits distractions. However, refer to the meanings of the other letters while considering timeliness. Otherwise, you might set a schedule you could never realistically keep.

Without using the SMART approach to goal setting, you might become disillusioned by perceived failures. Maybe the problem is that your plans are just not reachable. The process above keeps you in check and on track.

How Will You Improve Your To-Do List This Week?

Now, it may be clear why your to-do lists aren’t working as well as expected.

Fortunately, since you have these tips to make positive changes, it’s simple to fix those issues fast. Anticipate greater productivity coupled with a rewarding sense of worthiness.

What’s the biggest change you need to make to your to-do lists this week? Tell us in the comments section below!

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  1. John Brooking
    January 16, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Being very detail oriented to the point of OCD, my top To-Do List Mistake, not listed here, has always been designing a system with so many options that it becomes too much work to maintain. The result is that "Maintain To-Do List" becomes a task itself, and I begin avoiding my To-Do List for days at a time rather than deal with updating it before it's useful again, and the longer I ignore it, the worse it gets.

    The "4 Quadrant" system has been useful to me for a few years now. There are a lot of variations and names, but a common variation attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower is to divide tasks according to whether or not they are urgent and/or important. Some are both, some are one or the other, and some are neither. The ones that are both obviously get priority, followed by urgent but not important (maybe you can delegate those), followed by important but not urgent. And the not urgent and not important ones may never get done, but that's okay! Google Eisenhower Principle for more info.

    My latest incarnation is an app called "Priority Matrix", which implements this 4 quadrant display, although you can name the quadrants whatever you want. You can also have multiple sets of quadrants, to group by area (personal, work, other major project, etc.). I recently re-designated all my quadrants as "Today" (top left), "Recurring" (top right), "Do Soon" (bottom left), and "Don't Forget About" (bottom right). Each day I can move recurring ones that have come due into "Today", then see if I have time to move any of the "Do Soon" ones into "Today" as well. (I hope to someday get to some of the "Don't Forget About" ones!) It also has a "Master View" which will show you all tasks in a given quadrant over all projects. It's working well for me so far.

  2. Pierre
    January 15, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    Starting with he easiest is not a good idea I think, since tasks are getting tougher as you move along and WILL increase procrastination. Tackling the toughest first will make future task FEEL easier as the speed with which we accomplish them increases. As we have more energy at the onset of a string of tasks, this energy will diminish through the day and increase the possibility of procrastination. At least, that's my experience, your mileage may vary :-)

    • TPB
      January 16, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      Not to mention that the harder a task is (either reality or perception) the more important it usually is. Starting with the easiest things may make you feel good about "accomplishing a lot of stuff" but when you get to the end of the day and you haven't completed the important stuff? It drags you down mentally and emotionally and worse--it leaves the important task uncompleted.

  3. bruce w fowler
    January 15, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    Thank you. I now realize I have not been making to-do lists, but to-do queues, so I can quit worrying about doing things incorrectly.

  4. Leah Scarborough
    January 12, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Create specific tasks within my projects...they're in my head for now

  5. Nina
    January 11, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    I have never used any app for to-do lists. I always liked to write everything on paper. But when I started my new job at a marketing agency I found out about project management tools that help you with this. As said in the article, it was easy for me to write everything, when it was only my personal to-do's, but for projects it's a whole new story. We use ActiveCollab, tool that was very easy for me to learn how to use. And it has projects, task lists, subtasks... and many more things, but these I use everyday. Very helpful.

  6. Jorge
    January 11, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    Great article! Do you suggest any apps for estimating/tracking time that have a way of visualizing how accurate your time estimations are over weeks/months/years?