Ask any successful person how they consistently get great results and they will likely tell you it takes combination of focus, passion, and persistence, above all. Many of us are tired of hearing that. What does that really mean, anyway?
Ultimately, this boils down to setting goals and what better way is there to do that than using to-do lists, right? Chances are you may feel to-do lists are pointless or they haven’t worked for you.
Why do some use to-do lists to great success and others do not? What are the wealthy and truly successful doing differently that we may not be?
In my own personal experience and from what I observe with others, there are whoopsies that happen often when working with to-do lists. Here are some of the worst ways to handle to-do lists:
- Stash your lists where they will be misplaced or ignored – your list will not magically complete itself!
- Fill your to-do lists with mundane stuff you are likely going to do anyway (i.e. watching television, taking a shower, shaving, etc.) – to-do lists are best suited for things you may forget.
- Place your lists where the kids or pets may eat them, spill stuff on them, or write all over them (hey, you know the coffee mishap is going to happen again so why not avert disaster).
- Make your goals lofty with deadlines too far away – what can you get done today?
- Keep moving items off your to-do list so you can do them tomorrow or “when you get around to it” (be honest with yourself: if not now/today, it may not ever get done).
- Don’t stick to the list or bother to get others around you to use them too; instead, stick to firefighting and “going with the flow”, which inevitably leads to chaos – YAY!
Thomas C. Corley, author of Rich Habits and a slew of books on retirement and financial planning, makes note of the vast difference between the poor and the wealthy. He defines wealthy as making at least $160K a year with over 3.2 million dollars in holdings/assets while . Tom then goes on to define poor as earning under $30K a year with 5 thousand dollars or less in assets (of course, this may be extreme if you live in an area with a very low cost of living). The stark contrast comes down to the simple daily disciplines or rich habits. It’s really a matter of mastering the mundane!
So let’s start with the simplest of things: using a to-do list. I’m a big fan of to-do lists and often push for friends, family, and clients alike to use them (though some fight against it because it’s “not their style” – honey, I hope you are reading this LOL). These tools keep us self-accountable and create the urgency to get stuff done.. But often they fail or create more of a distraction if you don’t do it right.
The biggest reason to-do lists fail is because people do not understand how to set proper goals. I find the criteria for S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) goals provides the most effective model. For me, the more timely and specific the goals, the more I get done. I find that long-term goals only work when you set up smaller goals to get you there; otherwise, you may get discouraged.
Another huge reason to-do lists fail is analysis paralysis. If you’re like me, you may over-think things and get lost in your brainstorming. This type of mental acuity is great but it can get us into trouble. So start off simple with to-do lists and don’t worry about presentation or formatting unless you really need that to improve your workflow.
While it’s good to be granular with your goals, being too granular can keep you from doing the actual work or may overwhelm you. There needs to be a balance between immediate action and long-term readiness/planning. This is where keeping to-do lists help. Here are a few simple tips I find work best for me:
- Keep a daily to-do list for everything you can realistically complete in a single day.
- Just as Rich Habits cites, aim for 70-100% completion of your daily goals.
- Transfer unfinished items to a running to-do list.
- If lists get lengthy, try a columned approach where “A” items are the most urgent, “B” are ASAP, and “C” are recommended yet low priority.
- Always think about the value of each item before committing to it; needless items will only take away from what really needs to be done.
- Leave quick items off the lists and just do them right away; if you can’t get to the quickies right way, use a sticky note instead.
- Keep your to-do lists in the work areas related to the scope of work and make sure they are visible (i.e. kitchen chore lists in the kitchen, work lists in your work area/office, etc).
- Avoid analysis paralysis – don’t let your to-do lists become the brunt of your work day (5%, maybe 15%, planning 95% action works for most).
- Consider setting up notifications for time-sensitive items such as meetings, events, and the preparation thereof – use the medium/platform that you access the most (SMS alerts, eletronic calender alarms, and email notifications work well here).
- Always account for downtime and the things you are working so hard for to begin with: more time for your loved ones, hobbies, and don’t forget rest!
The beauty of keeping a running or master to-do list is that, when it gets too long, you are forced to work harder or really figure out what matters and what is mere busy work. S.M.A.R.T. goals combined with daily to-do lists help you work smarter so you actually make progress. It’s a beautiful combo!
Thomas Corley provides a brilliant take on the S.M.A.R.T. model by stating that a wish or dream becomes a goal when…
- It is 100% attainable.
- Physical action is attached.
Of course, everything is attainable but the question would be, “How soon?” Ask yourself how realistic it is to reach this goal soon, if ever. This is where I feel every goal should have time attached to it. Tom shares some more simple tips in the video below:
As you can see, to-do lists on their own are no good if you are focusing on the wrong things or aren’t setting them up the right way. Going into any goal setting or to-do listing, the attitude of “what can I get done today” is critical. It may help to work backwards from a major goal or a dream/wish if you need extra motivation.
Let’s say you wish you had a more reliable car. You may already have an idea of how much that will cost so now work backwards, reverse engineering the goal, if you will, to find out how long it would realistically take for you to save that much. This can easily turn into several goals and it may look something like this:
- Cancel subscriptions to magazines and cable channels I no longer read/watch.
- Limit take-out to once a week.
- Cut down junk foods when going grocery shopping.
- Car pool to work, church, etc.
- Take on extra shifts and/or pick up side projects.
With these goals, a little more refinement will be necessary to see how much money you will save or make. Eventually, this will turn into a daily to-do list and you can see immediate progress…
- Follow up with Janet about the new project she is working on and see if she needs any help.
- Send a quote to Andy’s friend about the web site he wants to rebuild.
- Develop a budget by Friday that will reduce our spending $100 a week (biggest spending areas: alcohol, gas, junk food, take-out, movies).
- Use the portable digital meter to see where we are consuming the most electricity and find ways to use less (turn off devices when not in use, consolidate laundry, switch to energy-saving devices, etc).
- Discuss changes in spending habits with my family and the long-term benefits we will reap if we all pitch in.
Whatever your process is, the only thing that matters, as Tom said in his video, is that you are specific and you take action. The sooner you can make progress, the better. This is why lofty goals fail: if we can’t see the interim accomplishments or milestones, it’s easy to give up prematurely.
I have the most fun when I see a seemingly unattainable goal and create a road map to getting there. It’s saved my family so many times, I tell you! It all starts with the painfully under-rated daily to-do list so I wholeheartedly agree with Tom’s simplified approach: be realistic and take action.
Remember: setting goals and using to-do lists should ultimately be a liberating process. These things should not become goals or projects on their own. The idea here is for you to feel accomplished. If you do this right, you will start finding out you have more free time than you realize and you can better spend it – SCORE!