The “me” that writes my to-do list is super ambitious. She thinks I’ll breeze through “Create framework”, waltz right past “clean out inbox” and crush “review report” all before noon. Then she tackles 17 more things before beginning her relaxation bedtime routine.
The me that actually does the to-do list?
- is distracted by email,
- gets in her own way when something feels daunting,
- is pulled into unexpected meetings,
- jams the copy machine and spends 20 minutes having to fix it, and
- takes at least five times longer than she thought to complete a task
This human me typically ends the day with a to-do list that is only half done and she feels overwhelmed and behind when the clock strikes 8 p.m.
The To-Do List: Where Do We Go Wrong?
Even though to-do lists have been around since the 1700s, we’re still pretty bad at writing them. In fact, experts say 41% of to-do list items are never completed. And a 2012 LinkedIn poll showed about 90% of professionals don’t accomplish everything they planned for the day.
There are two main reasons why: We
1. Over plan how much we can tackle
2. Underestimate how long each task will take
We write our to-do list for a mythical version of ourselves that’s never NOT productive. We stuff our to-do lists with all the things we could do if we had laser focus for eight straight hours. But research shows we only have about three productive hours in a given eight-hour workday.
And then there is the planning fallacy. Humans are notoriously bad at estimating how long it will take to complete a task – we underestimate like pros. So even when we do get to that thing on our list, it always takes longer than we think, pushing back all those other tasks.
The To-Do List and the 1-3-5 Rule
So how can we write better to-do lists? There are lots of strategies out there, but I ran across the 1-3-5 Rule recently and I like it a lot.
This rule takes into consideration our to-do list overstuffing and planning fallacy. It comes from Alex Cavoulacos over at The Muse. Her to-do list theory? “On any given day, assume you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things,” she writes.
Your list will look something like this:
- 1 Big Thing
- 3 Medium Things
- 5 Small Things
Then you use your Master Task List to fill in the tasks based on what’s important for you to get done that day and how long it will take. Maybe a “big” task takes a few hours. A medium task takes about an hour and a small task 15-30 minutes. Cavoulacos recommends leaving a few blanks, too, for those unexpected urgent assignments that always seem to pop up.
Here is a template for you to print. Once filled out – boom! – you know where to focus your energy.
Sounds simple, right?
But for someone who’s used to an “all things are urgent” to-do list, it’s tough to narrow down priorities. Cavoulacos says that’s the point. The 1-3-5 Rule forces your to get real about the amount of time you have and get intentional with your focus.
”Like it or not, you only have so many hours in the day and you’re only going to get a finite number of things done,” she writes. “Forcing yourself to create a 1-3-5 list means the things you get done will be the things you chose rather than what just happened to get done.”
The To-Do List: Be Specific!
When you’re writing out your big, medium and small tasks, make sure you’re also making them actionable and specific, too. When we add vague tasks to our lists (like review report) we add an extra mental hurdle of trying to figure out where to even start. A better way is to write the task so someone else could pick it up and have some sort of idea where to start.
Take the few extra seconds while you’re in planning mode to be as specific as you can be. For example, instead of writing “expense report” on your list, write “scan receipts”.
Next time you sit down to write that to-do list, try the 1-3-5 Rule and see how it goes. Maybe trying to complete nine things is still too much – you’re more of a 1-3-2 person. Or maybe you can handle more and you’re a 1-5-6er!
Bottom line: recognize how much we can actually get done in a day and write a specific, actionable to-do list to match. The more you do that, the more the planning you will match the doing you.
No, not everything gets done, but you’ll end the day a little less overwhelmed and frazzled.
.Leaving you with this from the lighter side: A to-do list is the simplest way to keep track of everything you hate yourself for failing to accomplish!