Maddy Osman
I write about productivity, the future of work, and collaboration at the Planio Blog.
July 25, 2017 · 5 min read

How to Make Your Work To Do List More Actionable

Make your To Do List More Actionable

Sometimes, the simple act of writing down all the things you have to do feels like accomplishing a task on it’s own. And although work to do lists are supposed to help people get through the day, they can also be a cause for stress.

According to LinkedIn, Almost 90% of people don't finish their to do lists. This is perhaps because as people go through the day, instead of crossing things off to do lists, the items on a to do list are more likely to stay the same or increase. Even if you’re actually accomplishing tasks, you probably find new ones to take their place. At the end of the day, even if you accomplish a lot, it doesn’t feel like it if you’re looking at a work to do list with a number of incomplete tasks.

Sometimes, writing down all the things you have to do feels like accomplishing a task on it’s own.

Instead of getting caught up in this vicious circle that leaves you feeling unfulfilled, here’s how to make your work to do list more actionable.

Make Your Work To Do List Shorter

Make Your To Do List Shorter

Productivity guru and bestselling author of The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey recommends putting only 3 things on your to do list. He refers to this as The Rule of Three. Here’s what you need to do to get the most out of this productivity principle:

Essentially, the three tasks you specify are the things you need to take care of, before dealing with other people’s needs. These do not involve menial/routine tasks like checking email or remembering to take the dog to the vet, but instead should focus on activities that actually contribute to work or your goals. Three tasks is a good number to focus on, representing a fair amount of work without going overboard.

Lifehacker suggests including something you must, should, and want to do, more specifically:

Put only 3 things on your daily to do list and complete them no matter what.

Alternate To Do List Techniques

By keeping your work to do list shorter, you can feel better about yourself for finishing less tasks than by having a long list, but panicking because you only finished a few. In his book Do it Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, Mark Forster suggests closing your work to do list by not adding any more tasks once you've decided on your most important items for the day. Besides Chris Bailey’s Rule of Three, you might also consider the following work to do list techniques:

By focusing on a finite/non-editable amount of tasks, your work to do list stays short and manageable. For best results, take the time to write your to do list for the next day on the night before. That way, you’ll know exactly what you have to accomplish as soon as you wake up and get to work, with no time wasted on gathering your thoughts.

Schedule Last Minute Tasks for Tomorrow

Schedule Last Minute Tasks For Tomorrow

One of the best tips for making your work to do list more actionable is to create it, and try to avoid adding to it. Of course, life happens. Sometimes against your best intentions, things get added to your responsibilities at the last minute, despite your best attempts to stay organized and focused.

Forster suggests that when someone asks you to do something last minute, you say that you will do it tomorrow. This isn’t procrastination, but rather a smart productivity tactic. Adopting this tactic allows you to respect your current work to do list and priorities, while also getting your contacts in the habit of respecting your time. It’s also respectful to them, because it allows you to finish your current work to do list and feel good about it, with your full attention available to accomplish their task the next day.

Of course, the best laid plans are sure to collapse every once in awhile. If an emergency presents itself, you’ll have to prioritize that, potentially shifting around the items on that day’s to do list.

Schedule Blocks of Time for Each Task

Chelsea Dinsmore of Live Your Legend suggests scheduling specific blocks of time for each task on your list. Start by estimating how long you think a certain task will take, then add an extra hour of buffer time. So if you think a task will only take 2 hours, schedule it for 3.

Add Buffer Time Between Tasks

Some tasks take longer than expected. Once you’ve got a better handle of how long your regular tasks take, you can reduce this buffer. But scheduling time with a buffer is a great best practice. It allows you to have a no excuses attitude about accomplishing everything on your work to do list. As an added bonus, if you end up using less time than expected, you’ve automatically created free time to tackle the little things on your list, as well.

Get Rid of Distractions

Distractions are the biggest action killers, so getting rid of them is important. A few easy way to cut down on the wasted time caused by distractions:

On that note, wake up early and schedule in the most important thing as your first task of the day. Regardless of your morning person/night owl status, it can’t be denied that people are generally most alert mentally when they first wake up. Aim to get your most important task done early, ideally before incoming email has the chance to throw you off. You’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment in getting your most important task done before the day has really even started.

Get up early and schedule the most important thing as your first task of the day.

Sometimes, giving in to distractions is simply your body telling you that you need a break. Your brain can only focus for 90-120 minutes at a time. If you find yourself zoning out, perhaps you need to take some time away from your tasks. Taking breaks can actually be quite productive.

Use the Right Tool

Work to do lists can take on many forms, but it’s important to spend the time to find one that will work well for you. Here are a few options to consider:

How to Make Your Work To Do List More Actionable

Your work to do list should not be a cause for stress, but rather a game plan for the day ahead. Properly structured and executed, it should leave you with a sense of accomplishment. Use these insights from published productivity experts to control your work to do list--and not the other way around.

What are some of your best tips for making your work to do list more actionable? Tweet your thoughts at @Planio, and we’ll share our favorites!