The Biggest “To Do List” Mistake Even Smart People Make

Author: David Allen Source: CNBC

The biggest waste of time and source of stress in the workplace is chasing our to-do lists.

How often have you found yourself chasing after 14 different tasks that keep scurrying down 25 rabbit holes? Every day, most likely. (It’s a lot like that “whack-a-mole” game we used to play as kids. The adult version is not fun.)


When it comes to productivity and creating to-do lists, the biggest mistake that even smart people make is focusing too much on their goals and not giving themselves the freedom to take a step back to recalibrate their focus.

And those who do attempt to do this often get distracted and allow their thoughts to scatter: Why is this so complicated? Did I hire the right consultant? Wait, should I let my kids take karate lessons? What do I do about the two new big tasks I just got from my boss? Am I missing anything else on my to-do list? Oh, my printer is out of ink! How do we deal with mom’s hospital bills? 

Let’s be honest: It’s happened more times than you’d like to admit.

So how can you maintain your focus? Or know what the “right” thing to do is versus something that isn’t worth your time? It’s tricky business, but there are steps you can take to become more productive.


I call it the “GTD” (Getting Things Done) method, and it has helped more than two million people discover the power of clearing their minds, sharpening their focus and accomplishing more with ease and elegance.

Here’s how it works:

1. Capture


Grab a sheet of paper and a favorite pen and take a few minutes to write down all the things that consume your attention.

This means any “coulds,” “shoulds,” “need-tos,” “might-want-tos” and “ought-tos” that weigh on your mind — but that you haven’t yet documented. Maybe they’re emails, piles of paper, files, notes from meetings, stickies and reminders lying around waiting to be handled, as soon as you “can get around to it.”

You do not need to address any of them right now; simply gather and put them in a trusted place. There are many ways you can capture these items (e.g., physical paper trays that are labeled, a smartphone app for taking notes, emails to yourself, voice reminders).

Whatever tools you choose, make them part of your daily work life and lifestyle.

2. Clarify


Now, it’s time to process each item. Pick up the first item and ask yourself: Is it actionable?

  1. If the answer is yes, what’s the next action? You’ll either: Do it now (if it can be done in two minutes or less), delegate it to someone else or defer it yourself (and make a note to do it later).

  2. If the answer is no, you’ll either: Trash it, store it as reference or incubate it (and put in your “someday/maybe” list).

This step is all about engagement. It can be tiring and require a lot of cognitive effort, which is why we often avoid it and stay in busy mode instead. But if you don’t clarify the things you’ve captured, there’s no hope for stress-free productivity — and your items will simply sit there.

3. Organize


This is where you’ll store and organize all the things you will want to do at some point, but not at the moment. You might do this by assigning each item to one of the following:

  1. A list of one-off actions: Items that essentially require one step to complete (e.g., buy diapers)

  2. A list of project actions: Items that require more than one step to complete (e.g., sales presentation deck)

  3. A calendar: Items that involve a specific time, date and location (e.g., meeting with Sarah at 8:45 a.m.)

You might even want to make a list of things you’re waiting for, or create files for project plans and reference materials.

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#ToDoList #Productivity #Work #Career #CareerAdvice

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