I don’t have a to-do list, I have a will-do list

By September 3, 2016Musings


When I hear people say they have a to-do list, I cringe, because most items on a to-do list never get tuh-dun.

That’s because a to-do list is rarely prioritized. It’s just a random compilation of all the things that need to get done, with no rhyme or reason, no timeline, no delineation of what’s important, and what’s not.

Plus, to-do lists are often self-defeating. When something on the list doesn’t get done, as is often the case, it simply sits dormant on a piece of paper, as it sadly watches other items added to the list. A proverbial never-ending story. The to-do item that got listed on Monday is, by Friday when unattended, shouting out: “Hey! What about me? When are you going to get to me?”

I’m an advocate of a will-do list. The word “will” can be defined as “the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action”.

A will-do list is a powerful motivator, because it means a decision’s been made. Once the decision is made, steps in the direction of goal attainment follow much more easily.

But the will-do list alone is just a first step. To add more power to the decision, the will-do’s should be couched in terms of:

“I will do _____ on (this date).

By making this decision, I’m committed to (completing/ accomplishing/ finishing/ starting/…whatever the action is) on the date I identified.

The only thing that will take me off course is an unavoidable, higher priority circumstance or issue, or an emergency.

When I say I will-do, I’m already picturing in my mind the satisfaction and results I’ll gain from having committed to a particular action and outcome. I literally see and feel the results that my commitment will bring to me.”

Are you trapped in to-do’s? Do you feel overwhelmed by an ever burgeoning list of things to do?

Another downside to to-do lists is that they’re often very tactical, and quite often list things that might need to get done, but are not high priority.

 Stephen Covey’s time management matrix delineates a quadrant of urgent, not urgent, important and not important, and you’ll find a great outline, illustrated with comics, here.

Unfortunately, many people spend too much time in the not urgent, not important quadrants.

So a good reminder is this: It’s important to schedule your priorities, not prioritize your schedule.

Make a commitment today to commit. Identify what you WILL do, by when, for what results. Then do it. Item number 1,374 on your old to-do list will thank you for it.

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  • Kaarina, only you can inspire in such a delightful way. I felt guilt, joy and motivation as I read your words. I have a too-much-to-do list but I do have a separate pad on which I note 6 priorities for the day and do not look at my master list until I’ve tackled these. I like Sid’s quadrant – so relevant. Sigh. Most of the time, when we switch off from the internet, mountains get moved! I am taking away this gem: “schedule your priorities, not prioritize your schedule.”

    • UDelighted that you enjoyed it! I counsel my clients to write down 3 priorities for the following day, and then do them the following day. It’s amazing how productive we can be when we accomplish the important things, rather than staying busy doing lots of low priority things.

  • oooo this is right up my alley. I totally agree that there is really no such thing as a to-do list. And honestly, it creates more stress than it’s worth. Couple of things I fundamentally believe and have demonstrated in my own life…

    Most to-dos are really projects. “Make dinner.” Sounds simple, right? But that is actually a project that requires a lot of to-dos. Plan menu, check pantry for ingredients, go shopping, slice vegetables, dress salad…. It goes on and on! That’s where you start to feel overwhelmed and say OMG there is so much on my list to do!!! That’s because you are trying to do a whole project as one item. But if you break it down into its smallest components, it gets a lot more manageable.

    Unless you have a deadline it won’t get done. “Someday” is not a deadline. I’m a huge fan of GTD which is essentially… you set up your projects, define your tasks and set due dates, even if it’s a month or a year in the future. Then when you need to do it, you DO IT. You don’t keep bumping it down the list. Also, the GTD version of a to-do list is the brain dump. That’s where you write down ALL THE THINGS and then you have a chance to clear your head and prioritize.

    If it’s a priority then there are no other priorities. We fall into this mistaken idea that we have three or six or ten priorities. No, you have one priority and that is the only thing you will be doing now. Everything else is just a task, perhaps in order of importance but you can only have one priority at a time.

    I also like the matrix where you measure on a scale of low to high effort vs low to high value. Low effort high value? Go for it! High effort low value? Back burner. Low effort low value? Rethink. It’s easy to get caught in the “low effort” quadrant even if you’re doing something unimportant. You figure it’s easy. You’ll just sort the silverware drawer, because why not? But that is taking time away from higher value things!

    Well. You can tell I have a lot to say, lol. I love this whole thing!

  • Writing down what you MIGHT do versus what you actually WILL do are horses of two very different colors. You nailed it, Kaarina! Love this message. 🙂

    • Thanks @melanie_kissell:disqus I find it both amusing and frustrating to hear people say they’re “so busy”, but when I as them: ‘what significant beneficial difference did that make in your day?…what did you accomplish?’ many can say what they did, but really can’t identify a beneficial result or outcome. I think that’s why many people are so stressed. They’re rushing around doing all kinds of things but accomplishing very little.