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Does your to-do list feel like it’s a black hole, sucking in all your time and not letting anything out?

You’d be surprised at how common this feeling is, but it’s also simpler than you’d think to tame this beast and take control of your list and your time…

Here are 6 powerful steps to control your to-do list.

  1. Review Your Goals: are they realistic and achievable? Having a BHAG is great, but have you broken it down into suitable chunks to understand how you can achieve it? If your goals are not clearly defined your to-do list is likely to be unclear, too. Similarly, if you don’t really believe they’re achievable, while ambitious (and they should be ambitious!), you’re going to battle to get out of the starting blocks.

So, look at your goals, believe in being able to achieve them and review your to-do list from this standpoint.

  1. Evaluate / Prioritise: now take your to-do list and evaluate it. I recommend using The Eisenhower Matrix, as Stephen Covey showed in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The principle here was to help people make decisions based on importance and urgency, using a 4-quadrant system (Urgent / Not Urgent on the x-axis and Important / Not Important on the y-axis).

After all, as US President & General Dwight D Eisenhower, renowned for his effectiveness, said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

So, assign each of your to-do list items to one of the four quadrants:

  • Necessary– things that are both Urgent and Important. DO these ASAP, although there should be relatively few in this category if you’re focused.
  • Quality– these are Important but not so Urgent. PLAN to do them when you realistically can – putting that plan together is key.
  • Distraction– these are the items that are Urgent but not really Important. DELEGATE them wherever possible. Yes, it might take a little longer to delegate a task as you have to explain it the first time, but it will save you many hours in the future.
  • Waste– items that are neither Urgent nor Important. ELIMINATE these wherever possible, and be ruthless about it.

It’s those Distraction and Waste items that Patti Digh is referring to with her ‘stop-doing list’ and why it could / should be longer than your to-do list.

  1. Break Your Goals / Tasks Down: your goals are generally too big to be single tasks, and while it’s fine to have some big tasks on your to-do list (e.g. replace our outdated ERP system), you can’t accomplish these in a single day’s task list, so break them down.

Looking at your to-do list (just the Necessary and Quality items as you’ve delegated or eliminated the others), which tasks are those you can realistically accomplish in a single day? Anything that is too big needs to be broken down into smaller pieces that can be accomplished within a normal day, and your to-do list revised accordingly. How well does it now map to your overall goals, and what you know needs to get done?

  1. Realistic Expectations: are 16 hours of work a day achievable and productive? We all tend to think that we can get a lot more done in a given day than we realistically can.

Those calls, emails, and other things take up time, so cater for them in your plans by putting blocks of time for them, and set a realistic number of goals to achieve per day with their own time allocation. Productivity expert Dr Ned Hallowell recommends no more than 3 short-term (daily goals), for example, with 3 weekly goals (they will fall into the daily ones on the appropriate days), 3 longer term (6-12 month) goals and 3 lifetime goals. And prioritise your daily goals, too, so you know where to spend your time.

  1. Schedule Your Time / Focus: the best way to ensure you accomplish your daily task list is to schedule time for those tasks and ensure you’re focused during those segments. And here’s the key – it’s often the “urgent” (small) stuff that we can knock out quickly that gets in the way of us completing our important tasks. And, as we know, being distracted and/or trying to multitask simply means everything takes longer: around 80% longer, on average, and it could be costing us as much as 6 hours a day!

Look at the flow of your day and decide when you will do the ‘background tasks’ like email and calls – perhaps 2-3 periods during the day. Schedule time for these. If you have meetings arranged, they obviously need to be in your schedule, too – as you become more familiar with this ‘time blocking’ you might ensure meetings are only scheduled at certain times of the day, and maybe days of the week.

Then schedule time for your priority tasks for the day. Ensure, too, you have some ‘Me Time’ scheduled – time where you can, without distraction, sit and think about the business. Finally, schedule any additional time for some of those less important but urgent tasks that you know you need to get through, but are not in your top 3 for the day.

And use your electronic systems to help you – switch off email and your phone during periods when you’re not using them. Use timers to keep you to your scheduled task (and break) times, and use task management systems to help you manage your to-do list better, too.

  1. Schedule Breaks: we simply cannot work non-stop for hours on end and still be properly productive. One method, developed by entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo, is the Pomodoro Technique, where you block time in 25 minute blocks, taking a 5 minute break after each, and a 15-20 minute break after 4 blocks (2 hours).

Everyone, though, has their own rhythm – hours when they are most productive with certain tasks, and other periods where they are not. Think about your rhythms and schedule your work blocks accordingly. But always take time out, have a break and move around. You might think you’re wasting time, but you’ll find you’re more energised and able to get things done after a short break.

And this goes for holidays, too. There’s a very good reason why everyone should take – and in some countries it’s legally mandated – at least one break of at least two consecutive weeks every year. You need that time out of the office to recharge your batteries, and this should be time away from work (a growing number of companies insist on no emails or business calls during these periods).


By adopting these disciplines, you’ll be able to manage your to-do list effectively, recognising that it’s an iterative process that needs updating all the time as things progress and change.

Having a long to-do list isn’t a bad thing, it’s great – showing you’re aware of all the things necessary to achieve your goals. Think of it not as a burden but a roadmap to your dreams. Embrace the journey and find joy in every step.

The mistake many people make is feeling overwhelmed by the length of it, rather than focusing on the things they can do today that will make a difference/

As Brian Tracy says, “There just isn’t enough time for everything on our ‘to do’ list – and there never will be. Successful people don’t try to do everything. They learn to focus on the most important tasks and make sure they get done.”


Following a career spanning >50 years in the technology industry across three continents, with three decades in CxO roles leading significant, sustained growth in revenue and profitability, I now work with successful owner-led businesses to further enhance their growth, profitability and business value.

If you’d like to discuss your business busyness, culture, board, strategy, trends, goals, or anything else related to your business, book a free 30-minute call with me here.

I’d be delighted to talk with you.


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