How to Actually Do the Things on Your To-Do List

Have you ever tried going through your day or week without prioritizing? It can be chaotic, especially if you’re an entrepreneur who is juggling lots of different things at once. When you assign each task equal importance, everything feels urgent. You can’t possibly complete every task, so you fall behind, and your list gets even longer. Meanwhile, the things that really need to get done aren’t getting star billing on your list. Not even close. They’re somewhere down there, but by the time you get to them, if you get to them, you’re ready to call it a day. The cycle of anxiety and chaos starts all over again before your head even hits the pillow.

It feels great to check things off your to-do list, but you defeat the purpose of the list if you’re focusing on things that aren’t urgent at the expense of things that are.

We sometimes do it subconsciously in response to feeling the pressure of a nearing deadline, or because we’re worried about failing at a task and we prefer to avoid it. It’s easier to focus on something that’s not super important rather than facing the reality of needing to deliver on deadline.

When your plate gets full, prioritizing helps you make decisions about what has to happen today, tomorrow, next week, and next month. It essentially tells you what you NEED to do before you can go to sleep each night. You may be dreading an item on your list, but when you’ve set priorities, you know when things can’t be put off until tomorrow. Or they can, but it means you’ll have to shuffle around your priorities for the next day. Your workout turns into an early morning work session. Your leisurely lunch date becomes a quick hello-and-goodbye. Or, you keep your workout, keep your leisurely lunch date, and evaluate whether that task you keep shuffling belongs on your schedule at all. It’s freeing to be the keeper of your schedule, right?

Freeing, but not always easy. Here are my tips on how to best prioritize, plus how to know when something should be kicked off your list for good.

1. Determine the best platform for your master list.

Over the years, I’ve tried many organization apps, including the popular ones like Wunderlist and Trello. Many people love these platforms, which allow you to categorize the items on your to-do list, prioritize them, and yes, cross them off with a satisfying little ping.

Despite the usefulness of these tools, though, I am a pen and paper girl all the way. Handwriting my to-do list keeps me really familiar with everything that’s on it, especially as I break the items down by day and week. Even though I prefer the low-tech route for my list, I do use some web tools, like my Google calendar, to set reminders about when things are due, when I need to reach out to people or invoice clients. I also know people who use the app on their phone to set reminders, or keep their master list in a Google doc or spreadsheet instead of on paper.

This is totally customizable for each person, and I recommend trying out a few different methods and seeing which one sticks. Once you settle into a routine, keep it going so it becomes habit.

2. Remember that no priority is too small.

Entrepreneurs rush through their days doing a million different things. If you’re the type of person who gets to the end of your day and realizes that you forgot to eat lunch or drink any water, there’s absolutely no shame in putting these things on your to-do list.

The reason for making priorities is to ensure that your day goes as smoothly as possible and that you tackle everything that needs to happen. Drinking water and eating are among those things. Many people also make sure self-care, exercise, and relaxation are prioritized on a daily or weekly basis, especially if these activities tend to get overshadowed otherwise.

Prioritizing doesn’t mean putting everyone else’s needs at the front of the line. In fact, it’s equally as important to prioritize the things that are important to you and only you.

3. Recognize when something is NEVER going to get done.

If something is on your to-do list and you keep shuffling it from one day to the next, followed by shuffling it from one week to the next, recognize that you may be avoiding it for a reason.

Several years ago, I had a client who had this problem. Every week after our call, we would put “update resume” on her to-do list for the week.  She was an incredibly organized person, and yet she always avoided this task. In the end, it was a sign that she didn’t want to apply for jobs. She wanted to start her own business, and she didn’t need a resume for that.

If you’re avoiding something on your to-do list for several weeks in a row, take a minute to decide whether it’s something you need to do, something you can put on hold, or something that you can kick off your list entirely. If it’s something that you need to do but you desperately don’t want to do it, consider whether you can delegate it.

4. Be open to delegating.

That brings me to my final piece of advice: be open to delegating things on your to-do list, especially if you don’t want to do them or you know that someone else could do them more efficiently. Take a close look at the tasks that you consistently put off. If they’re logistics or administrative jobs, maybe it’s time to consider hiring a part-time or virtual assistant.

If a task is nagging at you because you’re stumped on how to accomplish it, consider whether you want to enlist the help of an expert. Are you stuck on the task because you’re missing skills or knowledge? You’re the expert when it comes to your business, but you aren’t expected to be  a natural when it comes to bookkeeping, accounting, marketing, web development, and so on. If you’re open to delegating some of what’s weighing you down, there are plenty of professionals who can help with almost anything your to-do list throws at you.