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How To Simplify Your To Do List To The Essentials

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If you’ve got an overwhelming to do list, here is a strategy to simplify your to do list, keep your to do list manageable going forward, and make time for more things that matter.


For the organized and high achieving individual, a to do list is an important tool for managing life. A well formulated to do list ensures that critical actions are completed in a timely fashion, and nothing slips through the cracks.

Unfortunately, with the amount of things the average person has on the go these days, our to do lists can easily become overwhelming if they aren’t properly managed.

For some people, this means they will avoid looking at their to do list, and will be scrambling a week later because they didn’t allocate time to complete something important.

For others, they will get laser focused on crossing things off the list without assessing their importance, spending time and energy on things that get them no closer to their goals.

The more successful you become in life, the more you have on your plate.

Learning to prioritize what matters to you and to decline what doesn’t further your mission is integral to managing your time.

ANA MCRAE

So you may be wondering, how can I be strategic with my to do list?

Related post: How To Measure Your Progress On Your Personal Growth Goals

How do I make sure that one day my to-do lists get me where I want to go, and don’t derail or delay me?

I’ve got the solution from you. Below is a process I use with all of my life coaching clients to evaluate and optimize their to do lists to further their life goals, so that they can accomplish more than they thought was possible, faster.

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Step One: Do a Brain Dump

If you keep your to do list inside your head, you’re using your brain power ineffectively.

Your brain becomes occupied thinking about all of the things on your list, which prevents you from using that energy to think creatively and solve problems. Having to think about your list all of the time also keeps you from being present in your life, which is essential to living intentionally.

You need to get everything in your brain out on paper so that you know you’ve captured those thoughts somewhere and no longer need to devote the mental energy to reviewing them.

This allows you to free up capacity for thinking, reflecting, and clarifying what really matters in life.

Get out a piece of paper and a pen and set a timer for 5 minutes. Then write out every single thing you’ve been thinking you need to get done this month. Dump it all out there.

I’ve developed a pretty template that you can use for this (since it’s something you should repeat whenever you feel overwhelmed). If you join our email list, you’ll have free access to certain templates in our store (like the goal setting template & success checklist!)

Pro tip: I like to write my items out on little sticky notes, so that when it comes time to prioritize things, I can just move the sticky notes around instead of rewriting the whole list again! What can I say? I have an intense love for sticky notes.

It may feel overwhelming to see that list at first, but trust me, once we deal with each item individually, you will feel so much lighter knowing you don’t have to think about it anymore.

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Step Two: Categorize your list based on importance and urgency

Sometimes really important things that need to get done soon get lost among random projects we decided would be nice to do in the next few months or years…

The key to utilizing a to do list effectively and increasing your productivity is having each item prioritized.

I’ve developed a prioritization matrix that you can purchase for 5$ (or receive unlimited access to as part of our time management 101 e-course).

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If you want to mock up your own DIY version, simply take a piece of paper and split it into the following four quadrants

  • Important but not urgent: things that align with your values and your personal WHY and contribute to creating the life you want to live, but don’t need to happen straight away without consequences.
  • Important and urgent: things that align with your values and your personal WHY and contribute to creating the life you want to live, and do need to happen straight away or else there will be some sort of consequence.
  • Not important but urgent: things you don’t really care for, that won’t bring you joy, and don’t align with the person you want to be or the life you want to live, but need to get done within the next 1-2 weeks.
  • Not important and not urgent: things you don’t really care for, that won’t bring you joy, and don’t align with the person you want to be or the life you want to live, and really don’t need to happen anytime soon.

Take your brain dump list from step one and categorize it into each bucket, so that you have a clear understanding of the priority items on your list.

You can either rewrite the list, or if you used the pro tip above, move the sticky notes around to where they belong.

Saying yes to too much will bury you alive and render you a B-player, even if you have A-player skills. To develop your edge, learn to set priorities. To maintain your edge, defend against the priorities of others

TIM FERRISS

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Step 3: Categorize each item based on size

All items on your to do list are not equal.

Let me repeat… ALL ITEMS ON YOUR TO DO LIST ARE NOT EQUAL.

We often treat them as if they are. We allocate the same number of minutes for completing them, we feel the same amount of satisfaction when we cross them off, but if you treat all items the same you will not be strategic in how you spend your time.

Some tasks will take more effort to complete than others. Some tasks are less important than others.

Give each item the label it deserves.

  • Quick Hit: this will take you less than 15 minutes to complete by yourself. Example: hanging up a coat rack.
  • Just Do It: this will take you under an hour to complete, and it might require input from another person. Example: booking the hotel for your weekend getaway.
  • Project: this requires multiple decisions, probably input from someone else, and between a few hours to a few days to get it done. Example: planning your summer vacation, or setting up the new bookcase, or planting a garden.

You can categorize your list a few ways:

  • Write the appropriate letters (QH, JDI, P) next to the items on your list.
  • Color code the items with a highlighter.
  • Use different colored sticky notes for the 3 categories – if you want to go all in.

This step is important because when you are planning actions to complete this week, you can easily identify what is doable based on other priorities in your life that week, and avoid picking 3 projects to run at the same time, none of which end up getting completed.

We dig deep into this concept in our time management 101 e course, so if you struggle with taking on too much and not getting enough done, I highly recommend you learn how to

  • increase your productivity
  • optimize your environment
  • prioritize effectively
  • boost your motivation
  • increase your focus, and
  • get ahead

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Step 4: Take all of the items on the left half of the page and put them in a hopper

A hopper is the landing zone for things that need to get done someday, but not quite yet. It can be any sheet of paper, place in your notebook, list in an app, that you want.

This is the spot for all of the Pinterest ideas, all of the suggestions your friends gave you about new things to try to start, and dreams you have that you just can’t get to quite yet.

This is a great place to keep those things because you don’t lose the idea, but you don’t feel the pressure of having it on your to do list.

Once you’ve worked through the other quadrants on your list, you can start picking new ideas from the hopper.

This brings the overwhelm factor way down.

Now, I use a 9 square as my hopper. This is really taking it to the next level, and you can read all about it here. Basically it allows you to prioritize your to do list not only by importance and urgency, but also by level of effort and increase in happiness.

Any new idea you have, you ask yourself, how happy will this make me, and how long will it take to get done. You put it on the appropriate square. When the time comes to choose a new project from your list, you can already tell what’s going to bring you the most joy, and pick something reasonable based on the amount of time you have at that moment to complete it.

I use this with my life coaching clients as it can be complicated to figure out on your own. If you’re interested in one on one coaching to help you become more strategic, organized, and effective in your pursuits, I would love to work with you.

I challenge high achievers to overcome perfectionism and procrastination so that they can go from average to unbelievable and build a life exploding with joy.

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Step 5: Plan out your week

Whether you use your calendar, your bullet journal, or a piece of scrap paper, schedule out the things in your important and urgent quadrant first.

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Make sure they get done in time, and forget about all of the other things for now.

The momentum of completing small tasks will fuel your motivation to take on the bigger ones.

Once you’ve made it through that quadrant, come back to your hopper and pick the easiest things that will give you the greatest amount of joy.

When you’re planning out your week, make sure at the top of your list are the goals that will actually bring you closer to your dreams, and not just tasks to help you keep your head above water!

The laundry can probably wait, but you’re likely to prioritize it over writing the first chapter in your book, because you just want it out of the way. However, as Rachel Hollis says, you don’t want to get to your deathbed and say ‘I never wrote that book I dreamed of writing, but at least the laundry was always done!’

Prioritize actions that align you with your big goals above tasks that are easy.

And let me repeat one more time, time blocking is CRITICAL to getting through your to do list. On which day, at which time, will you be completing which action? Get it in there or it will not happen!

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Step 6: Start a done list

I had been doing this unconsciously until I came upon it reading the Jamimico blog. Mikaela Miller is a productivity champion.

A done list helps you see the progress you’ve made so that you don’t feel like you’re always under water.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of balls to juggle as we go through life. It is so rewarding to look at a list of things you’ve done over the past month, or year, and see that even though your to do list keeps growing, you are accomplishing so much.

Whenever you complete an item on your to do list, move it over to your done list. (Again, this is why I LOVE STICKY NOTES. So versatile!)

Some days, it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anything done, and a done list is the perfect reminder that we’re keeping up. We just need to pace ourselves.

Especially for the actions where our timeline was a little bit unrealistic, it is so rewarding to realize that you got it done. Maybe not in the month you initially intended, but it got done!

This has been my saving grace many times. Before I throw out an old journal or notebook, I glance through it for a quick overview of what I had wanted during that time period. I am always surprised by how much I accomplished after setting the intention.

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If you found value in this post, I would love your help in sharing this with the world on your favorite social platform! Together we can help more people build their dream lives.

Life is not about your to do list.

Life is about creating joy and meaning.

Related post: Building A Meaningful Life

Sometimes the things on our lists help with that, but often we get carried away and focus more on ticking the box than aligning our actions with our dreams.

Do a regular check in with yourself to see if your to do list actually needs to be done, or if you can get away with letting some things slide. Become a master at delegating. Get really good at prioritizing your time.

If you want to have the time to build a life that matters to you, it is so important to be diligent with how you spend your minutes.

If you can keep things off your list, you free yourself up to choose more meaningful ways to spend your time.

  • Say no to things.
  • Delegate what you can.
  • Commit to that which actually brings joy and meaning to your life.

By the way, just know that you are doing it. You are killing it. You are better than you think. Don’t forget to give yourself grace and prioritize positive self talk.

Life gets a little crazy you guys.

Just keep moving forward. You will get there.

And if you want to get there faster, you know where to find me.


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What items did you take off your to do list after going through this process? Let me know in the comments below!

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