How to make a to-do list that actually helps you get everything done

Your to-do list doesn’t actually contain everything you need to do.
Your to-do list doesn’t actually contain everything you need to do.
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A lot of people start their workday by making a to-do list. Depending on how realistic you are, there are probably anywhere from three to 15 items on your list. If it’s three, you probably end your workday feeling accomplished and energized. If you try to complete 15, you probably wrap up your day feeling stressed, disorganized, and guilty.

This is because to-do lists have one key flaw: They very rarely encompass everything you have to do. What’s missing are two other huge factors that dictate how you spend your time every day: the meetings on your calendar, and the messages in your inbox. Both your calendar and your email also contain “to-dos” that, like it or not, are probably going to eat up a lot of your time.

We behave as if we have one to-do list—the one we write down—when we in fact actually have three to-do lists. The problem emerges when we behave as if we have eight to 10 hours to deal with our written to-do list, while ignoring the vast time commitments dictated by our calendars and email. If you are a busy, in-demand person, you could easily have three to six hours blocked off for meetings, calls, and other management tasks, and then you’ll spend another one to two hours inevitably reading and responding to email.

That means it’s very easy to create a to-list that presumes eight hours of available work time when your actual availability looks more like two to four hours a day. You’re constantly planning to be productive on borrowed time—trying to shoehorn your most important tasks into time that’s already spoken for.

To see just how far out of alignment you are, start by taking a look at what you have planned for today. Jot down a to-do list as you normally would—except add time estimates next to each task. Then take everything on your calendar that’s not already on the list (such as calls, brainstorming sessions, and meetings) and add it with time allotted next to each task. Then guesstimate how much time you spend on email per day, and write that down as your last to-do item with a time estimate. Finally, take stock of how many items are now on your to-do list, and add up how much time you are planning to spend on those tasks.

If you’re anything like most people, your “real” to-do list will now look terrifying. What’s more, it will probably require a 16-hour workday if you really wanted to tick everything off. Well, at least now you know why you feel so unsatisfied and/or exhausted at the end of the day. But how to remedy the situation?

It’s really quite simple: You need to bring all three of your to-do lists—your written list, your email list, and your calendar list—into alignment with each other (and your priorities). Rather than having a calendar that gives over six hours to meetings, an inbox that demands three hours of work, and a to-do list that presumes four hours of free time, you instead integrate all three items to reflect what you want to accomplish and how much time it will take.

Step 1: Prepare for a calendar makeover.

Other people are always happy to invite you to meetings, schedule calls, and generally do whatever they can to eat up all of your valuable time. If you let them do it unbridled, what you’ll end up with is a day organized around other people’s priorities (and a few crappy little 15- to 30-minute increments in which you can focus on the work you need to get done).

By contrast, if you book time for both your necessary admin work (such as email) and your necessary meaningful work first, then everyone else—including you—will be forced to book those additional meetings and calls around your most important work instead of in lieu of your most important work.

The only problem is … your current calendar. It might already be crazy booked for at least the next few weeks. If that’s the case, look as far into the future as you have to and figure out when your schedule starts to open up. That’s the week when you will begin to take back control of your calendar.

Step 2: Make room for meaningful work.

One of the reasons that so many of the tasks on our to-do lists end up woefully undone is because we have to go to meetings, and we have to do email; they create their own urgency. But if you want to make sure that you regularly accomplish meaningful work—the type of work that helps you advance your career, push forward important projects, or expand your skill set—you have to make time for it. (Productivity guru Stephen Covey calls this putting the “big rocks” in first.)

Now that you’ve identified a start week when you have some wiggle room in your schedule, go ahead and block off time on your calendar for one or two 45- to 90-minute sessions per day for meaningful work. This is when you will work on those to-do list items that you really want to do, but never find the time for: creating that presentation that will blow away your boss, writing the conference talk that will get you noticed, or just pushing forward key tasks that often get neglected, like sending invoices or updating your website.

Step 3: Timebox your email.

You might hate email, but it’s a necessary evil and you’re going to spend a good portion of your day dealing with it, so just put it on the damn calendar. I’d recommend putting two to three “email focus” blocks of 30 to 45 minutes on your calendar. Commit to checking your email during those time periods, and not checking it otherwise. If you tend to nibble on your email throughout the day rather than at designated times, consider making a change. Research has proven that people who check their email in “batches” are more productive, happier, and less stressed.


Now that you’ve made time for everything on your calendar, you will be in true “to-do” alignment and prepared to execute like a pro. To keep yourself honest, I recommend making a practice of always adding everything that’s on your calendar to your daily to-do list so that you’ll immediately notice when, and if, you slip out of alignment and the tasks start to pile up again.

Productivity isn’t about being ambitious—it’s about being realistic. And the more clear-eyed you can be about how you plan your daily calendar, the better off you’ll be.