The Value of “To-Do” Lists


Meeting Goals and Managing Time for leaders


Now, we’ve all heard the time management experts tell us to make a prioritized list of things we need to get done and work through it, right?  This appears to be a great idea in theory. The list makes the abstract concrete and tangible. It gives us positive reinforcement when we complete the tasks and cross them off our list.


However, in practice, benefitting from “to-do” lists can be difficult for some of us for several reasons. First, our organizational problems cause us to shy away from lists since we fear we’ll become slaves to them. We may find the very idea of a list intimidating. After all, there is no such thing as a short list. We have so many items that need to be listed that we become overwhelmed.


Do you make “to do” lists but then don’t follow them? If you are like my clients who tell me they make lots of lists, but have difficulty following them or even finding them, you are not alone!  Difficulty following lists is very common among people with a creative or right-brain dominant personality style.


It’s not that you are lazy, crazy, or dumb…it’s just that you’re wired differently.  So accept it and work with it.  Even though it’s not easy for you, there are some tricks to making your lists easier to follow.  Writing itself is a very effective way to clarify what’s on your mind, process information, and remember things. So there is a good reason to keep on making your lists! They help you:

  • Remember things better (just like taking notes)
  • Slow down your brain to the speed of writing so that you can think more clearly and articulate your ideas.
  • Reduce your fear that you will forget the items


Regardless of the benefits, lists may be harder to follow if:

  • There are too many items on it
  • Handwriting isn’t clear or the lettering is not big enough
  • You use light colored ink or pencil
  • Action items aren’t listed in order of priority and you have to scan the whole list to decide which things to do next.
  • Items don’t list all the information you need to act on them, e.g. if you don’t write the phone number and have to hunt it down, you may skip right over that item on the list.
  • The spacing between the items is too close.
  • More than a day or two goes by before you look at it again (hence, the list may lose all sense of urgency)
  • You are stressed when you look at the list
  • You have lots of other ideas going through your head when you look at it
  • The items are so vague that you forget what you actually meant (i.e., you may write things like “Call Doctor” and then forget which doctor and why).


Everyone is different in terms of what works best for them, but here are some tips that might help you make your lists easier to “follow”:

  • Limit the items to 4 – 6 short items
  • Put space between items. This makes it easier for your brain to focus on one item at a time.
  • Put a line or box in front of each item so that you can check it off when you are done
  • Use color (e.g., highlighters) or asterisks to help you highlight the highest priority items
  • Use brightly colored paper with high contrast to your ink.
  • Put high priority items at the top and lower priority near the bottom of the list and don’t mix things you would “like to do” with things that you really “must do”. Prioritize tasks as A, B, or C tasks. Further prioritize each of these into 1, 2, or 3 so that you have A1, A2, and A3 then B1, B2, and B3, etc. “A” tasks are those that you absolutely must do because they are the most urgent or important; “B” tasks are those that you should do but aren’t nearly as urgent or important; “C” tasks are those that you’d like to do if you have the time

Time management and goal setting for leaders





Alternatives to linear lists on paper may also help.  I use different methods such as mind mapping. Some of other tools my clients (and I myself) use:

  • Lists and reminders on mobile phone
  • Digital Recorder
  • Calling in to voice mail (and leaving a message for myself) or sending email message to self
  • White board
  • Flip Chart in office (Post-it makes a flip chart with removable adhesive to post on the wall)
  • Magnetic pads for the refrigerator
  • Chalkboard in the kitchen


You may need to experiment with alternatives to find the best methods for you. And, you may need different kinds of lists for different activities. Give yourself permission to make lists just to help you get things off your mind, without expecting that you have to follow them! If they helped you remember and you did the action items without looking at your list, that’s great.


Lastly, I recommend that “organizationally challenged” people own and carry an electronic data device of some sort. They are great for recording things, reminding you of deadlines and appointments, and storing all sorts of information.

If you want to improve your ability to meet your goals and manage your time, check out our audio-recording entitled “Meet Your Goals & Manage Your Time”. It is available as a packaged product sent via mail or as an electronic download:

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Barbara Jordan, 
Author, Trainer/Facilitator, Executive Coach

LPI (Leadership Practices Inventory) Certified Coach

DISC Certified Behavior Analyst

AdvantEdge Success Coaching & Training

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