It shouldn’t surprise you that a Professional Organizer is going to tell you that one of the secrets to getting and staying organized is in creating lists. It’s not rocket surgery. We’re all overwhelmed (and aging) and it’s just harder to remember things that we need to do. You think you can still rely on your brain and your memory, or just saying out loud “Oh, I have to remember to …..” and think you will. Spoiler alert: You won’t. You need to write it down. Just admit it, already. You’ve got a list somewhere; just add it. 

And I also know that there are plenty of people out there who reject the thought of keeping lists at all: 

“I’m not a list person. I can’t be bothered to write things down”

“They never work for me”

“I love lists. I have them EVERYWHERE. Then I lose them and I never do anything with them.”

“I stare at my list, and my list stares back at me. Nothing gets done.” 





I often work with clients on their to-do list habits to see if we can figure out what isn’t working for them, and how we can make the To Do List a big part of success, not of failure. Over time, I’ve learned the 5 mistakes that people make when creating their list or trying to work with it. 


  1. You’re listing outcomes, not actions

    This is the mistake I find most people making. They write down on their list the outcome, like “Get mom birthday present”, but that’s not really an ACTION they can do something with, and it is not the NEXT thing they can do something about. Think about all the steps that might go into “Get Mom birthday present”:

    – Think about and determine what to buy Mom
    – Shop for item (online or in person – when and where will that happen)
    – Wrap gift (which might also include the task “buy wrapping paper”)
    – Don’t leave gift on table when going to Mom’s (or “Mail present to mom”)

    If the item that is on your list is not ACTIONABLE and NEXT TO DO, it is easy to keep staring at that item and glance past it. Review your own list of things you’ve been ignoring. Are they outcomes? 


  2. You don’t schedule your tasks

    You look at your to-do list, and think “I need to do these things,” but WHEN exactly is that going to happen? When you combine reviewing your task list with planning your time on your calendar, it’s smart to take those items and add them directly to time slots in your day. Whether the items are when you’re out and about, like errand running, or taking advantage of the time between appointments, slotting when tasks will ACTUALLY happen is a leap forward in productivity. So, the next time you say, “Oh, I have to remember to ……”  make sure part of your brain is also saying, “Absolutely! When?” and you find an answer to that question.


  3. You aren’t prioritizing

    Not all tasks on your list are created equal, right? Some are more important, some are more urgent, some are deadline specific, some can’t happen until other things do, etc. Regular review of your list can help you prioritize and surface items to the top (which will work nicely with scheduling your tasks, right?). Don’t know where to start? Ask some questions of your tasks:

    – Is this urgent? Is someone else being held up by the fact that this isn’t done yet?
    – Is this a MUST DO (like pay the bills)? Is it a SHOULD DO (like schedule my annual physical)? Is it a LIKE TO DO (like write a nice letter to an old friend)? Knowing which bucket it falls in may help you sort out what is a priority, and what isn’t. Make time for all your buckets, but prioritize when they’ll happen. 
    – Is it as important to you today as it was when you put it on the list? Sometimes, enough time passes that a priority can shift. (Heck, maybe you can even delete it from your list now completely…)


  4. You don’t have it with you everywhere you go

    People who are strong at productivity will tell you that they are good at making use of downtime. They catch up on to-do lists when they’re not home, or they’re good at capturing items to be done even when they’re on the go. Whether you carry a list on paper or it is on your phone or in the cloud, having access to your list so that you can both add items to it or take care of items on it whenever and wherever it is convenient to you is a HUGE step towards being more productive.


  5. You write things down, and never look at it again

    A to-do list is a system, and a system only works if items go through the process from beginning to end. Having a list, but never reviewing it isn’t going to make those tasks get completed. Build a regular HABIT of reviewing your list. Maybe it’s daily, maybe it’s every Sunday and Wednesday. Maybe it’s weekly. Make a regular habit of reviewing what’s on there. It is a great opportunity to mak sure you’ve captured actions and not outcomes, you prioritize, and you schedule those tasks, 


Which mistake are you making with your to-do list? Which one of these could you try out today to make a difference in your daily productivity? 


Happy List Making!