Take a look at your to-do lists from the last few days. How do you feel about how they were organized and what you accomplished? For the most part, are your tasks grouped by context—phone calls listed together so that you can run through the list when you pick up a phone, errands grouped together so that you can run them all when you are out?

The problem all too many people face is that they try to list everything they have to do on tomorrow’s list. At the end of the day, most of those things remain undone and are rewritten on the list for the next day. At the end of the next day, the same thing happens. The avalanche begins as tasks are rolled from day to day. Soon, we dread all of the re-writing we will face at the end of the day. Some may give up on the idea of making a to-do list altogether.

One simple way around this cycle is to compose a “master list.” The master list is a page (or several pages) in the back of your planner. When a task comes your way that does not have to be completed in the next few days, add it to the master list. Each week, look at the master list to see which tasks you want to “feed into” to-do your lists for this week.

You will not forget any of the tasks, because they have “trapped” on paper. You are also free from having to decide on what day you will accomplish each task. Because you look at the entire master list each week, you are giving it the kind of regular review which will keep tasks from slipping through the cracks.

Go ahead and block out an hour or two in your planner when you can really concentrate on composing this master list. Maybe Saturday morning is a good time for you. Maybe a weekday evening is best. Your first master list is an opportunity to “download” everything that your brain has been trying to keep up with—the plans for your vacation, the Christmas gift ideas you are coming up with for your relatives, ideas for your Professional Development Plan. Let your pen flow as you empty those thoughts on your master list.

In the end, it is the attention to detail that makes all the difference. It’s the center fielder’s extra two steps to the left, the salesman’s memory for names, the lover’s phone call, the soldier’s clean weapon. It’s the thing that separates the winners from the losers, the men from the boys, and very often, the living from the dead. Professional success depends on it, regardless of the field.
-David Noonan