Does Your To-Do List Never End? Do This Instead.

A hand holding a pen fills out a daily to-do list notepad on a white desk.

A to-do list can have the unintended consequence of becoming overwhelming when, rather than supporting your life, it feels like you never get to the end of your tasks.

We’ve all had those days when we’ve finally crossed something off our list, only to then add several more tasks in its place. 

If you’ve been feeling taunted by your endless to-do list, it might be a good idea to pause and take a step back. We can be our own biggest critics and task masters sometimes, and easily get frustrated with ourselves and our perceived lack of output. 

If you feel like you're never getting to the end of your to-do list, I want you to try something counterintuitive yet highly effective. It's time to start narrowing your focus. It may seem backwards at first, but limiting your priorities will actually improve your well-being and your productivity overall. 

Below, you’ll find ways to help you gain perspective and hone in on your priorities by changing the way you build your to-do list.

Instead of having a to-do list that makes you feel less than, you can design a productive day that makes you feel empowered.

Focus on 3-month goals

While planning and organizing are key to leading productive lives, it’s also easy to get carried away and attempt to plan every single detail of our future. Whether it’s planning for grad school or designing career goals or taking care of our family, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that not every detail needs to be planned or worked on at this very moment. 

Instead of adding expansive tasks that encompass your entire life to your daily list of to-do tasks, try focusing on short-term goals for the next 3 months instead.

Why 3 months? Well, a quarterly schedule is a timeline that many offices and individuals already follow. Plus, a 3-month schedule takes the pressure off having to plan your entire life, while still allowing you to set manageable and realistic goals to build significant growth.

Another benefit of setting 3-month targets? You’ll have an easier time tracking your progress. Instead of waiting out a whole year to see what’s working or not, you can have weekly check-ins to review your development.

And 3-month goals give you the momentum and motivation you need to keep going. For example, if you see that you’ve been meeting your fitness goals or writing your novel every week for 3 months, you’ll instantly feel good and motivated to build on your success over the rest of the year.

With a shorter timeline, you can also spot-treat any issues early on before they become bigger problems. For instance, if you’re working on a novel and having trouble with a storyline, you can get feedback from a peer or teacher, allowing you to address any issues now, instead of waiting until you’ve already written the entire thing to start improving it.

Pick your top 3 priorities

Does your to-do list have 10-20 items? Time to consider cutting back.

You might argue, “But I need to do all these things!” 

Are you sure you *really* need to do every single thing? Try taking a step back and see the bigger picture. 

Ultimately, we want our to-do lists to be building towards something, helping us achieve a bigger purpose or the bigger picture, not just keeping us busy.

Refer back to your 3-month goal and use that as a tentpole to move towards. At least one thing on your daily to-do list should be something that is helping you reach that 3-month target. 

A technique you can use to narrow down your to-do list is to define your top 3 priorities.

Does 3 seem too small? That’s the point! You want to create a to-do list that’s achievable, and one that focuses on the things that matter most to you. No longer will you feel like you’re being tugged in a million different directions. Defining your top 3 will ease the guilt we feel about unfinished tasks, and instead, inspire us to keep pursuing meaningful work. 

Here are some ways you can define your top 3 priorities.

  • Pick 3 things that must be done today. This can be a deadline that’s related to your goal or work-related tasks or anything with a firm deadline.
  • Pick 3 things that will put your mind at ease. Sometimes, we just need to check off that thing that’s been nagging us all month. Maybe it’s doing your taxes or following up with a health insurance company or finally updating your LinkedIn profile. Pick the top 3 things that will give you peace of mind when you accomplish them. 
  • Pick 3 things that are meaningful to you. So often, a to-do list is designed to meet the needs of other people’s priorities or work-related tasks. But we need to ensure that our own emotional, spiritual, and physical needs are also being met. Ask yourself: how do you want to feel at the end of the day? Do you want to feel calm, happy, energized? Then pick activities that will help you get closer to that intention. Maybe it’s a phone call with a good friend or going for a long walk or taking time to journal. 

You can even mix and match from these categories. Maybe you want to prioritize a work deadline along with two priorities that will nourish you. Or maybe you want to tailor your priorities to your goal. See how you’re feeling and then create your to-do list accordingly.

If you’re able to accomplish the top 3 tasks, then you can slowly add more items. The key thing is to make sure you’re completing these top 3 items, so that you can end the day feeling confident and empowered, knowing that you accomplished things that truly mattered to you. 

Make a someday list

It’s so easy to feel pressured to learn a new language or take up gardening when everyone else seems to be taking up new hobbies, and doing them well. But if you don’t have the bandwidth to get to these things, put them on a someday list. 

A someday list is kind of like an aspirational Pinterest board, but in list form! You can add anything you’d like to try or explore when you can commit to it. Maybe it’s redecorating your workspace or organizing your garage or learning a new language. 

This is a helpful resource to have when it's time to set your yearly goals. Check in with everything you wanted to accomplish "someday". Maybe you'll realize this is the right year to start working towards one of them!

A someday list takes the pressure off your daily to-do list and gives you the space and freedom to accomplish tasks at your own pace. You can use a journal or a running Google doc or notes app to write your someday action items.

You might be asking, “But do we really need another list?” Sometimes, it’s just nice to have things to look forward to, but also not feel bad about.  You’ll get to these things when you have the time and energy.

Remember: you are the architect of your to-do list and your own life. By resetting expectations and focusing on what really matters to us, we can stop feeling anxious about our to-do lists, and start seeing them as simple, practical tools that help us feel more grounded in our lives.

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