Getting To Do Lists to Work for You

sharpened pencil, pencil shavings, sharpener, and blank notebook

For a long time I’ve been a pretty poor to-do list manager. As far back as high school, I can remember struggling with tracking things I needed to get done. I think I’ve tried every strategy known to man: ABC/123 lists on notepads, checklists in Day Timer books, tasks on Post-It notes, electronic lists in my computer, task “appointments” in my electronic calendar, and I even attended a Franklin Day Planner seminar in the early 90s. I lugged around a bulky Franklin planner for several years. It looked impressive, but I never mastered the to-do list.

There have been a variety of reasons various techniques haven’t worked for me. I’ve never had work where I sit at one spot all the time, so whatever method I use had to be portable. Paper-based methods were always the worst for me because I spent more time maintaining the lists than I seemed to spend on the tasks themselves. Home-grown electronic tools (lists and charts in spreadsheets or documents) always became overwhelming for me as the list grew in size. (There is just so much to get done!) Those strategies were hard to organize, too. I needed a way to look at just my household tasks, or just my church tasks, or just tasks for my clients, etc.

I know—some of you are thinking “Haven’t you heard of Wunderlist, or Todoist, or Where have you been?”

Actually, I have heard of these and I have tried them. I think the first one I tried was Wunderlist. My brother Mark lauded and I gave that a shot. I eventually had a trial run with Todoist based on the endorsement of one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Challies. I tried a few others in the process, too.

These apps are certainly portable and convenient. (They are a tremendous improvement over the pre-smartphone era!) They have the power to organize and sort types of tasks (for home vs work, as an example). They are free. (That’s always great!) They keep the lists organized rather automatically so that I don’t spend time maintaining the structure of the tasks.

Eventually, though, I gave up on each one. I didn’t keep the tasks updated so I didn’t stick with it.

And it frustrated me tremendously.

I couldn’t figure out why these wonderful tools didn’t solve my problem with keeping tasks organized. Several people I admire and trust swore by them. Based on what they said, these apps were almost life changing! (That’s overstating it just a bit.)

Looking at my issue a little more carefully, I discovered two things:

  1. The number of people succeeding with these task tools is actually in the very small minority. Most people still wrestle with written lists and usually do it poorly. So I wasn’t alone in this. (That made me feel less like a failure.)
  2. I was missing the point on why I failed at adopting one of these apps.

What I failed to see is that converting my task management work over to an app is a rather significant behavioral change. I was trying to overcome years of habit and dysfunctional strategies in a matter of a few hours. This is because my method for going about this behavioral change had been to go “cold turkey” and attempt to instantly manage absolutely everything in life through that one tool.

I would gather all my notepads, journal pages, Post-It notes, calendar items, etc., and plop it all into the app in one shot.

In short, I wanted the app to manage my brain for me!

Bad strategy. It was a recipe for failure. And I did.

Several weeks ago, I gave it another shot. I installed Todoist on my phone and bookmarked it on my computers. And I started small.

I identified one project to track in the system. One. Nothing else.

Tracking one project helped me to learn Todoist’s features and to begin that process of modifying small chunks of my behavior.

Eventually I become comfortable with the system and added another project. Todoist allows you to separate tasks by project, so this enabled me to learn another aspect of the software, too.

Then an interesting thing happened. I began to look forward to opening Todoist each morning to explore the day’s task list. I started to enjoy clicking the button that magically made the task disappear when complete (it gets archived). And then I began to add more and more projects and personal tasks, too.

Todoist has a clever “karma” feature that gives you points for completing tasks on time. The points don’t mean anything, but I assure you I want to earn more points and move to the next “award” level.

So, it’s working! I’m successfully managing my to-do list on a daily basis using one tool!

Confession: I’m still not perfect with task management. As I pause and think for a moment, I can name several tasks that are not yet started and/or overdue. That, though, is largely due to another problem—trying to do too much. (See How to Stop Spinning Plates.)

Here’s reality:

  • All leaders have tasks to manage.
  • The most effective leaders are really good at it.

I’m confident I am now improving in my ability to manage tasks. I’m becoming a more effective leader.

How about you?

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Angelina Litvin. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

4 thoughts on “Getting To Do Lists to Work for You

  1. Hi Scott: Great article. I too have struggled at times with the best way to manage time (which is really a misnomer), projects, and to-do task lists. The most success I’ve had is with Covey’s “First Thing First” (Quadrant II time management grid) as an overall way of thinking about things (urgent vs. important). Then I supplemented that with principles from Matt Perman’s “What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done”, and Tim Challies’ “Do More Better”, and Kevin DeYoung’s “Crazy Busy” and Richard Swenson’s “Margin”. All four of these have overlapping principles of using our time and talents with task efficiency for God’s glory and our (and others’) joy.

    I have also tried phone apps and software for tasks and none of it seems to work for me in the long run. The old-school pen-and-paper calendar to-do list generally works best for me overall because it doesn’t make me a slave to technology, software, or gadgets and it is also a motivator to see progress as things get checked off as done. But on the other hand, seeing a long list of uncompleted tasks is sometimes self-defeating, guilt-inducing, and creates anxiety. So I’ve learned to not take it personally if I don’t get everything done as I originally intended and realize that tomorrow is another day to do the next thing.

    Like most things that involve art and science, each individual has to discover what works best for them personally. My main strategy is saying “no” to things that are outside of my lane. That greatly minimizes alot of trivial tasks so I can focus more on the more important tasks. And my primary motivator in task management is asking myself, “Who will I let down if I don’t get this done?” Answering that seems to keep me prioritized and on track for the most part.

    Thanks for writing the article… good food for thought.


    • Dave,
      You’ve named several of my favorite resources, too. I’ve learned a lot from Swenson, Challies, the four quadrants model, and others. Each has influenced my approach to managing time, tasks, and responsibilities. One thing your comment points out (i.e. your preference for pen and paper) is that each of us will develop a system that is right for personal wiring, responsibilities, and goals. That’s very important!

      Another thing to consider is that increasing our effectiveness in this area is a life-time effort. This isn’t something that we figure out then check off the list of things to do. Ironic.

      By the way, here is another resource that I have been greatly enjoying of late: the Trello blog. Many of the articles showcase the Trello project management app and Web site, but there are also many articles that are software agnostic and focus on time, task, and project management. I’ve picked up several great tips there.

      Thanks for the dialog, David.

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