5 Mistakes You’re Making With Your To-Do List

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! 





  1. Seana Turner

    Very interesting observation about writing down outcomes instead of tasks. That is so true. I think that could be a whole blog in itself as it is very tempting to do this. You’ve got me thinking on this one for sure.

  2. clevergirlorg

    I”m glad I got your gears turning, Seana! Thanks for taking the time!

  3. Stacey Agin Murray

    Action words are very important to use on a to-do list. When I work with clients on this task, I ask them to think back to third grade and all the verbs they learned and use them when compiling their to-do lists. Words like ‘call, ‘look up,’ ‘fill out’ remind the person of what they have to exactly do to complete that task. Great advice to all those working on their time management skills! Will pin to my ‘Tips for Time Management’ Pinterest board.

    • clevergirlorg

      I love the “Think about 3rd grade” tip! So true! Thanks for reading and for sharing!

  4. Jamie Steele

    Great post! I like your point about prioritizing. Just because it was the first thing you remembered to write on your list doesn’t mean that it is the most important task or even a task worth doing.

    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks, Jamie! I love your observation of “just because it is the first thing you remembered doesn’t mean it’s the most important” – We all know we forget the thing we were doing when we walked into a new room, so our memory can’t be trusted to sort out importance! 🙂

  5. Ellen Delap

    I like to take a baby step and write it down instead of the whole shebang. So if its wrap gifts, I might write check gift wrap. And it also means I can usually get it done quickly.

    • clevergirlorg

      Plus you also get to cross things off that list 🙂 But really, it marks out progress as you go, and makes those tasks REALLY achievable! Thanks for reading!

  6. Janet Barclay

    I was using a software program for my to do list which was fully customizable. I created a priority level called Someday Maybe where I entered all the ideas that popped into my head about things that would be nice to do if I ever had time. Of course, I never did, so the list just got longer and longer and I honestly never even looked at it. I don’t do that anymore, but I haven’t figured out where to record those “someday maybe” actions, or if it’s even worth the bother.

    • clevergirlorg

      I’ve had a “Someday Maybe” list for probably 15 years, since I went through GTD training with David Allen. I loved the idea and it helped me both take things off my to-do list that weren’t practical, but also build a list of ambitions. Sure, I still have things on it like “Make Wedding Album” (married 8+ years now…) and “Take Spanish Lessons”, but I like that it’s there as a parking lot. Some things have definitely come off the list due to “not so compelling” and some I’ve actually done!

  7. Daria

    So true! So true! I have begun to schedule blocks to time to finish my to do list-especially if they are boring. For some reason I hate calling to make appointments so if I don’t have a half an hour on the calendar to do it I will put it off. Great post!

    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks for sharing — I love the insight of using time blocks to help fight boredom!

  8. Olive Wagar

    I liked your reminder to take the list everywhere you go to take advantage of downtime. In addition, I like to keep a book or magazine with me, as well as blank note cards & stamps. Having a note pad with me helps me “write down ideas & examples for next speech” when I have a few extra minutes sitting in a restaurant. You never know how long you will be waiting somewhere. It definitely helps me cross off a few items on my list!! Thanks for sharing this on P.O.B.C.

    • clevergirlorg

      It’s amazing how the smallest items can help us maximize productivity, like a list, stamps, a small notebook and a pen!

  9. Liana George

    I love your tip about making our lists actionable. I had a client who would put down general terms for the things she needed to get done. When I encouraged her to turn them into action verbs that changed things for her! It may not seem like a big deal, but it can make a big impact when we go from outcome to action!


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