How to Actually Execute Your To-Do List: or, Why Writing It Down Doesn’t Actually Get It Done

By Leo Babauta

Have you gotten good at organizing your tasks in a to-do list, but have trouble actually executing them? You’re not alone.

Getting things on your to-do list actually done is difficult because it’s really a collection of habits that most people don’t think about. Today, we’ll look at addressing those issues that stop you from doing things, and the habits needed to overcome those issues.

This post was prompted when reader BJ Thunderstone recently asked a great question:

A lot of productivity systems such as Getting Things Done by David Allen or Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster concern themselves with writing lists of things to do. This skill is easy to learn.But what if the problem isn’t making lists, but executing your plan? What if you write “Get X, Y and Z done” and then you can’t make yourself do any of these things?

I think that many people have a problem not with making to-do lists – but with executing what is written on these lists.

B.J. went on to list some of the reasons he and others have a problem getting things done. Let’s address them one by one.

“I feel resistance when starting work on something.”
First of all, it’s good to analyze your resistance, which is something we don’t do often. Why don’t you want to start on something? Identifying the problem can help lead to the solution.

Having said that, there are a couple of suggestions that could help:

“I am terrified of certain tasks, or of working on certain projects.”
There are usually a few reasons those tasks or projects terrify you:

  1. They are too intimidating in size or scope. To combat this, break it down into tinier chunks — actually, just the first tiny chunk (as David Allen tells us to do in GTD). It’s intimidating to do a task like “Create report on X” or “Make a yearly plan for Z”. But if you just need to do the first physical action, which might be, “Call Frank for figures on X” or “Make a list of 10 things we should accomplish this year”, it’s much easier to tackle and less intimidating.
  2. You don’t really know how to do it. If you haven’t done something a million times before, it is unfamiliar and unknown to you. And we are all terrified of that. The solution? First, get more information — learn as much as you can about it. That might require some research on the Internet, or talking to someone who’s done it before, or reading a book, or taking a class. Whatever you need to do, make the unknown become the known. Second, practice it as much as possible. Once you’ve learned how to do something, you need to practice it to become good at it. Don’t practice the whole thing — practice individual skills required to do a task or project, one at a time, until you’re good at those skills. Once you’ve mastered them, it will no longer be terrifying.
  3. You are focusing on negative aspects. You might be focusing on how hard something is, or on all the obstacles. Try looking at the positive aspects instead. Focus on what a great opportunity this project represents … an opportunity to learn, to get better at something, to make more money, to work on a relationship, to gain some long-term recognition, to improve your advancement opportunities. This is similar to the “get excited about it” item in the previous section. If you look at the opportunities, not the problems, you will be less terrified and more likely to want to do it.

“I start, but I get distracted and never finish.”
If you start, you’ve already made a big step towards finishing. Now you just need to work on the distractions. My suggestions won’t be popular, but they work:

“I often don’t feel like doing any work at all. The idea of work seems horrible and I never start doing anything.”
I know this feeling well. It plagues us all, and there’s no one good answer. However, here are some suggestions:

“I make a list of things to do the next day.. and on that day, I wake up looking forward to a bad day, full of unpleasant tasks, I don’t feel like doing anything from the list.”
Two things to say here:

  1. Overload. The most probable reason is that you’re overloading yourself. People tend to pile too much on themselves for a single day, overestimating how much they can actually do. Get into the habit of choosing only three Most Important Tasks to do for the day, and do them early in the day (at least two of them before email). If you only have three things to do, it’s not overwhelming. You’ll probably have some smaller things to do later, but write those down under a “batch process” heading, and do those small things all at once near the end of the day.
  2. Fun. The second thing is that you’re loading yourself up with unpleasant tasks. Who wants to face a day of that? Instead, put down tasks that you’ll look forward to doing. Create an exciting to-do list for tomorrow. If you really have nothing important to do that’s enjoyable, it’s possible you’re in the wrong job. Look instead for a job that you’ll actually enjoy. Yes, every job has unpleasant and difficult tasks, but they lead to something rewarding. They support something you get excited about. If you don’t have anything like that in your job, you need to take a closer look at your job — revamp it somehow, or look for another.