Why Your To-Do List Is Not Working?

And 12 Hidden Principles to Make it Work

5 min readDec 3, 2018


Not long before I simply kept ‘Writing for blog’ on my to-do list for quite some time. I kept on my daily to-do list migrating it from day after the other. It went to the point where I started feeling guilty about keeping it on my to-do list. I said to myself, ‘You know what, I am not made for writing.’ And my ego even supported me saying, ‘Sathya! You got better things to do!’

Eventually, I got over it.

The trick was — knowing the difference between the task and the project, and 11 other principles while making a to-do list.

Most of us get the premise behind making a daily to-do list, but terribly fail in getting the process right. Even worse, some even go to the extent of blaming their failure to the tool itself. ‘Go with the flow!’ they suggest.

I have been studying how to efficiently use a to-do list for improving my efficiency and helping others enhance their performance. Here are the 12 principles that could help you better design your to-do list.

“Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results.” ~ Peter F. Drucker

12 Principles to Master Your To-do List

  1. Set up a weekly 20-minute meeting with yourself. First things first. Take time for planning, listing your master list and reviewing your actions, at least once a week. If required, put it on your calendar and stick to the commitment.
  2. Review your day’s work. Spend the last 5 minutes of your day in reviewing. What went well? What failed? On challenges faced, lesson learnt…
  3. 6 Boxes Focus Areas: This is one of the best secrets I learnt from Peter Bregman. Deciding upon my key functional areas in itself gave a lot of clarity. You can look up into your job description and your contribution to organization’s overall mission could give you an idea to decide upon your focus areas. I usually allocate my to-do lists to the focus areas on the 6 Boxes template. This gives me tremendous amount of clarity and focus. Even among the 6 areas, I knew the priority areas like Sales where I have to proactively seek work.
  4. If possible, finish your day by making to-do list for tomorrow. It clears up your mind. More importantly you know what needs to be done that day because you made the list previous day itself.
  5. Batch work: I prefer to batch my phone calls/ emails in a particular time. While most of us simply can’t deny being disconnected, we should try to the maximum extent possible to be connected — meaningfully, not otherwise. Few recommend checking e-mails only once/ twice a day. I usually don’t attend calls as it comes; I batch it and schedule it during my pause time. I prefer to be on my feet when I’m on a call. First it helps me shake off my nervousness, second it saves me from distraction on my laptop and third I get a quick workout.
  6. Avoid confusing an event with a task: This is common mistake we make. Meeting with your boss/ team, presentation to the client, phone call to the manager @ 11 am, conference call on Friday, appointments — those items that can be put on your calendar, should be put on calendar. These are events not tasks, and would demand scheduling. However, preparing a powerpoint presentation for the upcoming meeting @ 4 pm is a task. Know the difference. GCal works perfectly for me to schedule events. I get notification alerts and can add/delete events from my smart phone. Use it to the optimum advantage.
  7. Chunk the project into Task list: Anything that requires more than a single action step is a project. I learnt that ‘Writing for the blog’ is a project which can and should be broken into tasks list like ‘Research for the article’, ‘Make the first draft’, ‘Submit for editing and proofreading’ and ‘Re-write’ and ‘Publish on web’. Now ‘Research for the article’ is on my daily to-do list. Notice that it is not even ‘Write the article’ — it is just research. Chunking as it is usually called is a fantastic liberator for those confused.
  8. Know the difference between Goal and a Task: I recently hit 30 years old mark. While it gives a sense of responsibility and it also sometimes feel burdensome. Particularly I realised that I need to take control of my health. But putting ‘Become my best physical self’ on my to-do list simply did not work. I needed to identify my action item — eating healthy, developing a workout routine, meditating and others. Based on the chunking puts it in the habit list or my to-do list.
  9. Make a separate Rituals/ Habits Lists: For quite some time, I have been trying to put habits that I need to do that on my to-do list. It unnecessarily clogged my to-do list. Now I have removed it and put it as my overall habits list like Exercising, Meditating, Drinking a glass of fruit juice, etc. I also have to consciously tell myself habit is quite different from my task list, because I got too elated of doing my habit as mastering my daily task list. It was not so.
  10. Be mindful of boredom/ fatigue. Alternate between tasks– so that you keep yourself excited. I usually try to jump from a work in Sales to Training to Marketing etc.
  11. Pause. I get and walk out of the office once in half an hour or so. I take my phone and make the calls. Or simply walk out and check out what others are doing.
  12. Finally, remember it not about getting things done, it is about getting the right things done. While enough has been said about prioritizing — based on urgency, importance, or based on resource available. Always working on high-priority tasks gives me enough stress. I sometimes prefer to sneak in a phone call to a friend, a 2 minutes walk after lunch, a comment on an entertaining post I just read — to break from the monotony of work. In its strictest definition, these are unimportant tasks, but I find them rejuvenating.

I recommend you to apply each of the principles while designing your to-do list. It will not just help you perfect your to-do list, but improve your overall productivity by identifying the kind of work thrown at you, processing it and ultimately get it down effectively.

Originally published at www.quora.com.




I help creative entrepreneurs to increase their online visibility and establish their niche authority. sathyahq.substack.com