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The Keys to Time-Management (Part 5): Tame Your To-Do List!

In this final article in my Keys To Time Management series, I’ll help you Tame your To-Do List so that you can actually get done the things you intend to get done when you intend to do them, and follow through consistently!

While I’m just giving you the tip of the iceberg here. It’s important to understand all the pieces and parts that need to come together for you to be able to manage your time, energy and focus effectively and efficiently. (If you missed the Time Management Foundations in Part 1 of this series, please click to start here first.)

Time Management comprises a complex set of systems, tools, skills and strategies that need to be personalized to support you most effectively.  But, when you have customized your Pillars of ProductivityTM and they’re set up to work for you and your unique strengths and tendencies, they becomes life-changing scaffolding that allows you to tap into your potential and have the Freedom you want for the things (and people) that matter most to you!

With the right scaffolding supporting you, you are able to perform at the level of your abilities more consistently and more easily, and free up those 3 Precious Resources of Time, Energy and Attention for the rest of your life!

As a part of that essential scaffolding, you need to Tame Your To-Do List if you want to

Get Your To-Dos Done!

As I explained in the previous article, having some sort of reliable system where you can record and manage the all things you need and want to do in your life is essential. It is impossible for anyone, especially someone with ADHD or ADD tendencies and our typical memory and Executive Function challenges, to manage all the moving parts and pieces that comprise our lives. If you have been following along and you are creating good, solid habits about using your list, it’s important next to think about how you are putting things on your list.

Regardless of the system you use to manage the things you need to do in your life, you want to make sure you’re actually tackling the tasks on the list so that you can keep it from growing exponentially.

Surprisingly, how you record the tasks on your list really does make a difference in your ability to execute those tasks!Lynne Edris Working on Calendar at laptop

Does your To-Do List look something Like This?

My clients who struggle with Time Management often have a problem executing the things on their To-do list, partially because of the way they are recording those things. A typical to-do list for a client might look something like this example:

  • Buy groceries;
  • Dog meds;
  • Get the car serviced;
  • Redecorate living room;
  • Call a plumber to fix the gushing leak in bathroom;
  • Look into Master’s Degree program;
  • Take out the trash.

Of course, a new client’s list would also be much longer but, if you look at this list, what you will see is a combination of things that are single-action items, more complex projects, things that are urgent or timely, and things that are more what I call “someday, maybe” things to do.

Below are some basic To-Do List Principles that can make it much easier to get your to-dos done!

To-Do List Principles

Rethink Prioritization.

Many of my clients struggle with prioritization. So many experts advocate the Eisenhower matrix as a way to prioritize based on where things belong in the quadrant of what’s urgent, important, not urgent, and not important. The problem for most of my clients is that everything feels important (or it wouldn’t be on the list to begin with), and what’s “urgent” can feel skewed (which back to that wonky perception of time I talked about in Part 2 of this series).

And many of us make prioritization harder than it has to be because of the emotional connotations of “priorities” as well. (As in, “If you had your priorities straight…”) If you have resist or have an unhelpful relationship with the concept of prioritization, try reframing the concept as simply “Ranking” or ordering your to-dos. It’s the same outcome, with a very different feeling!

Orient on Time.

The sample list above contains timely items that are more urgent, such as getting the leak fixed, amidst “someday, maybe” items like, “Look into Master’s degree program”.  You need mechanisms and systems you can trust to capture all the things you intend to do immediately as well as the things  you just might want to look into down the road, and you need to have some degree of confidence that all of those things will get your attention, or your brain won’t want to let go of them. (Which is one of the reasons task management is the most complex of the Pillars of ProductivityTM to set up in a way that works for you, and why we spend months perfecting task management in my Unleashed!TM 90-day time management mentoring program.)

More timely items do not belong alongside things that you don’t intend to execute in the same timeframe! All that does is confuse our minds and make our brains have to work too hard to filter out what’s timely, what’s not, and what we intend to do at that moment. And, again, we’ll often avoid all that extra processing or we’ll have little bandwidth left over to get started on what we do choose, or we’ll choose to do things that feel easy or catch our attention in the moment. (That’s one reason so many of us end up letting our inboxes or whatever momentary “crisis” pops up, drive our days!)

Structuring your task management systems around dates (instead of that always murky notion of “priorities”) can make a big difference in making it easier to plan each day in a way that you can actually execute.

Clarify Consequences.

It’s undeniable that prioritization is a crucial element of planning and getting your to-dos done, but it doesn’t have to be so complicated! The simplest place to start when deciding what to do next (which is all prioritization really is), is looking at dates and consequences. First, look for any hard, external dates associated with your to-dos. Sometimes the date is a real deadline of some sort, like a due date, but sometimes the date is more of an expiration date. Obviously, you wouldn’t bother to RSVP to an event after the event has already happened. Likewise, if you don’t get that leak on the list fixed soon, you may have some significant damage that will be very costly in the long–run. Associate the date with that task as well.

Then, after those external deadlines, we want to look for dates after which either something negative will happen (like a late fee or embarrassment), or after which it doesn’t make sense to bother with the task at all. For example, there’s a date after which it honestly is just more embarrassing to send that thoughtful gift or note you want to send. Even though it’s an implicit date, that “why bother”, “expiration” date is real! So, think about a date after which it no longer becomes appropriate to send a thank-you note. What is that for you? A month? Six months? It’s important that you thoughtfully figure out what that real date is, and list it along with the task.

To be clear: I’m not talking about arbitrarily picking some date to try to trick yourself into taking action! (You know that doesn’t work any more than setting your clocks ahead works to keep you on time!) I’m talking about thoughtfully deciding on a realistic, not-to-exceed date. There’s an important distinction there! Orienting your “priorities” on time can make it so much easier for you to figure out what to do next.

List Tasks vs Projects.

Often, a task that looks simple and seems as though it’s a single action item can be something that requires multiple steps and increased Executive Functioning. For example, the second task, “Get car serviced,” may be more of a multi-step project than it might seem! If you don’t have a mechanic who regularly services your vehicle, you’ll need to find one. Where do you look for one? Would you ask? How do you know who you can trust? If you don’t know exactly what service your car is going to require, you’ll need to get your owner’s manual and figure it out. Maybe you’ll need to look through your records to see when your last service was performed. If finances are an issue, not only do you need to know what service is going to be performed, you need to figure out how much it’s going to cost so that you know whether you can cover the bill. Then, of course, you need to be on top of your calendar to be able to schedule the appointment for service once you do make the call. And if you need a ride… It’s no wonder our cars go un-serviced at times!

Clear is always Easier.

We are always more likely to execute things on our lists when they are noted as single action items. True tasks. When we list projects that require multiple steps, it can make it harder for us to execute those things because it requires more Executive Functioning. Those multi-step projects require our brains to process them (utilizing our Executive Functions like working memory, organizing information, and sequencing) and use a whole lot of mental processing energy before we even attempt to get started, or Activate. When we use up too much of our Executive Function processing deciding what to do and how to get started on it, we tend to avoid and/or have less processing power left to actually get started.

When we record only single action items or the next action step in a multi-step project, we free our minds up to execute more easily. This makes it much more likely for us to do the things that we need to do when we do them.

Please note that even the first task listed on the example list above, “Buy groceries,” can be more like a project than a single action item. To buy groceries, we need to have some sort of an inventory of what we need to replace,  as well as some sort of a plan for what kinds of groceries we’re going to need, i.e. a meal plan of some sort. And all of that requires a whole lot of executive functioning before we even think about when we’re going to have the time and energy to “Buy groceries”! Unless you have systems in place for meal planning and pantry inventory, buying groceries is actually not a simple, single-action item! So it’s no wonder that we either avoid it until we’re looking at Mother Hubbard’s pantry, or we head to the store and pick up things we don’t need, and leave without the things we do need. 

Focus on The Next Action.

When you find yourself not executing something that on your task list, it’s important to look at it and see whether there are multiple steps to that thing that are causing you to be stuck. I always suggested that my clients record the next, logical action step to those tasks that are not single action items. When you cross that first step off, you simply add the next action step. Beware: if you force yourself to list ALL the action steps to a project, you are likely to get stuck and overwhelm yourself with the volume of things on task list. If our lists grow to be too long, that can shut us down as well and make it harder for us to get anything done. So, at most list the next one or two logical steps in the project. If you feel you need to do some more detailed planning on a project, I recommend my clients do that somewhere other than their primary task list. A separate notebook or a new electronic document, app, or some other place to record those details can be helpful.

Even when we do manage prioritize well, sometimes we find ourselves letting tasks repeat and not executing them when we intend to. When this happens, I always advise my clients to look at the task and see what small piece of it they can, with 100% certainty, do today. Right now. I always asked my clients, “What is the smallest piece of that you can do right now?”

Then, I ask them, “On a scale from 1 to 100, how likely are you to do that task today? Honestly.” If I get anything less than 100%, I’m going to have them break it down even further. That Activation (or getting started) part of our Executive Functioning can be very hard for those of us with ADD and ADHD. Once we get started and passed that Activation stage, we are often good to keep going and can keep up our momentum. So…

What’s the One Thing that you can do today, with 100% certainty, to get you moving?

Managing your to-dos effectively by creating habits around your list(s) and being vigilant about how you record what’s on your list can make a big difference in making sure your list doesn’t grow faster than you can execute the items on it!

Next Steps

Give your to-dos the once-over and analyze whether what you’re doing is (or isn’t) working for you, and where you are adhering to these basic principles.

Like the other Pillars of ProductivityTM , having a solid system for task management that is easy to maintain and helps you get the right things done more easily is an important part of managing your time effectively. It enables you to quickly plan in a way that you can execute, and frees you up to be able to pursue the things in life that you enjoy, and are good at!

And that’s what this is all about, really.

There is more to life than constantly struggling to keep up with the demands on your time!

That’s what all this hard work is really for, isn’t it?

I know I’m giving you the tip of the proverbial iceberg here, but you really can learn to take control of your time and your life, and create the freedom you want. There’s nothing wrong with you, your self-discipline, or your work ethic!

If you’re struggling to make the most of your time, energy and attention, there’s nothing wrong with YOU! You just haven’t learned how to do things in ways that work for you yet, and these really are things that you can learn!

With the right scaffolding supporting you, it really is possible for you to…

Make More Room in your Life For What Brings You Joy!

You really can Take Control of your Days and Tackle your To-Dos with Ease so that you Have

  • More Time
  • More Energy and
  • More Bandwidth

For What Matters Most!

You need to learn to do things in way that work for you, and you need to have your systems, tools, strategies and structure (those Pillars of ProductivityTM) set up to work FOR YOU, with your natural strengths and tendencies, in your real, actual life, so that you can accomplish what you intend with ease and perform at the level of your abilities more consistently. 

And that’s exactly what we can do together in my Unleashed! 90-Day Time Management Mentoring group. Check it out and join us at

I’m here and ready to help!

Until next time,
Lynne Edris


Lynne Edris, ACG
Productivity & ADHD Coach

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