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Article Four ways to improve your to-do list (and why it matters)

To-do lists are incredibly useful.

Used correctly, they help you manage your thoughts, your tasks and your business.

There’s just one problem.

A lot of the time, to-do lists aren’t used correctly.

Research has shown that 41% of tasks on to-do lists are never completed.

And of all the tasks that are completed, only 15% actually started as to-do list items.

So many people have two bad habits:

  • Writing down things they never get around to
  • Doing things they never actually wrote down

Luckily there’s a lot you can do to make your to-do list better and start feeling the benefits.

Here are four tips to get you started.

Four tips for a better to-do list

1. Make a physical list

The human brain is great at a lot of things. Remembering important tasks is not one of them.

A to-do list that just lives in your head isn’t a to-do list. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

You will forget things. You’ll focus on the wrong things at the wrong times. You’ll make more work for yourself and your business.

Getting that list down needs to be step one.

Pen and paper are fine for a lot of people. Or there are many apps that offer extra functions and easier sharing (plus they’re a lot harder to lose).

But whatever you choose will be better than “I’m sure I’ll remember…”

2. Set SMART tasks

SMART is an acronym that helps to make sure your tasks are as effective as possible. It stands for:

  • Specific – tasks need to be an actual action, rather than an abstract idea e.g. instead of “Sort out the invoicing issues with our customer”, you’d write “Speak with someone from our customer’s accounts payable team”.
  • Measurable – tasks need a specific outcome so you can tell when it’s done, e.g. instead of “Research printer options” which might never end, you’d put “Buy a new printer”.
  • Achievable – tasks should be realistic, e.g. instead of “Double size in the next six months”, which might not be likely (and it’s certainly not just one task), you could go for “Speak to 10 new clients this week”.
  • Relevant – tasks should directly move your business strategy along, rather than simply feeling like productivity; e.g., instead of “Check Twitter to see there’s anything worth tweeting about,” you could go for “Build a content plan of 20 tweets for the next week”.
  • Timed – tasks need a deadline, e.g. “Call my accountant” would become “call my accountant by 4pm today”.

By making sure your tasks meet these criteria you’ll be much more inclined to complete them.

And you’ll get much better results when you do.

3. Do the hardest things first

Once you’ve have everything written down, it makes a lot of sense to start with the toughest task.

More often than not, the toughest tasks tend to be the most important. After all, if they were tough but inconsequential, they probably wouldn’t make it onto your to-do list.

Get the tricky ones done and they can have a huge impact on your business.

Plus everything else seems easier in comparison. That’s why this is often called “eating the frog”, after a Mark Twain quote:

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

4. Check things off as you do them

When you achieve something, you feel a little boost for a job well done.

This is evolution’s way of making sure we do important things, like find shelter, gather food and generally survive.

In the modern world we can get this boost from checking our social media, or playing computer games. They replicate that feeling of having achieved something, or checking something off.

Instead of spending time on this fake feeling of productivity though, you can use it to your advantage by focusing on real productivity.

Every time you complete a task, physically check it off.

Your brain will recognize it as a job well done, and you’ll feel inspired to do even more.

Don’t wait until the end of the day and collect them all up. Each individual task, take a second to mark it done.

Check off each task, and you’ll be hooked on productivity in no time.

Why your to-do list matters

Having a to-do list is useful for all businesses. But for small businesses, it’s invaluable.

An up-to-date, ordered list of tasks gives you an achievable plan. But it also helps you remember (and react to) new opportunities that come up.

Let’s say your biggest customer happens to mention that it’s their birthday next week. A simple note “buy Steve a birthday card for next Monday” becomes a nice gesture that sets your business apart.

Without an effective to-do list, you might mean to send the card, but you simply forget. And with a bad to-do list, the task might live somewhere near the bottom so you don’t get around to it in time.

A good to-do list helps you with the very thing that sets small businesses apart from the big players. That secret weapon you possess that they don’t.


To find out why agility matters so much, check out our Agile Business Manifesto.

In fact, that can be task number one on your new and improved to-do list.