A reader had this to say about the to-do list that keeps getting longer: My biggest challenge is that I make lists but then often don’t get through the daily list. So tasks just accumulate and the backlog gets longer and longer. It’s not that my daily list is too long. The problem is I don’t stick to the list but often get side tracked by interesting things on the internet or I’ll deal with emails and find they take up the day. I guess it comes down to self-discipline.

There’s nothing wrong with a long to-do list. It’s not having that list that would worry me. A comprehensive to-do list provides a singular place to trap everything that needs attention. Having that list means choices you can’t act on in the moment don’t become forgotten. Here are some tips for making that long to-do list a friend:

  1. Make the list clear. Start tasks with a verb so you can see yourself doing the task. Word it so you know exactly what to do. What looks like one task may really be a project consisting of 5 or 10 tasks. Break it down. What’s easy gets done.
  2. Put it in order. That doesn’t mean you must decide whether a task is going to be #126 or #127. Do select the “Fab 5,” the five tasks that are the most critical, and put those at the top of the to-do list. If you use a digital list, use the “priority” field and sort today’s list by that field. Use the priority field to segment your list into the “Fab 5,” other tasks for the morning, tasks for the afternoon, and tasks for the evening. What doesn’t get done will roll over to tomorrow. You never have to re-write the to-do list.
  3. Batch related tasks. Much of putting the list “in order” involves grouping like items. Run errands in one batch. Arrange quick 1-on-1 conversations at the office on one batch. You are less likely to engage in chit-chat when you know you have four more people to see. Batch phone calls. Calls tend to be shorter when you see the next five of them on the list. This post discussing batching communication.
  4. Have a “Master List.” We all need a parking place for those things we plan for the future. Some tasks will have a particular date. Assign that date in your digital task list. If you use a paper planner, flip to that day and enter the task. If the task doesn’t have a specific date, put it on a “Master List.” I like to assign the last day of the month to those tasks to do “sometime.” With a paper planner, create this list in the back. As for plans for the coming days, look at the Master List and pull tasks that will fit into your plan. With a digital list, it’s as simple as changing the date. This post focuses on the Master List.
  5. Blast them into the future. Backlogs are a part of life in most professions. Things work in cycles. At times, work comes in faster than work can be done. When the list becomes a chore, look for items to jettison to next week or the Master List. With a digital list, it’s as easy as changing the date. When things calm down, you’ll see plenty of candidates for batching.

The key to overcoming procrastination

Make the list irresistible. Diversions to Facebook, YouTube, or the water-cooler hangout happen because they are more attractive than your work. If you are like most people, getting started is the hard part. If you can see a list of easy tasks ordered logically, it’s fun to jump in at the top and see what you do to make the day count. When you can see all the choices, you make better choices.