033: Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work: The Priority List | Tanya Dalton Skip to the content
August 29, 2017   |   Episode #:

033: Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work: The Priority List

In This Episode:

Learn why the traditional to-do list is working against you. I’m showing you how to use a new system – the Priority List. This will allow you to actually work toward the important items on your list, like your personal goals, instead of getting bogged down by insignificant tasks. After this episode, you’ll be inspired and ready to start tomorrow morning off with your new and personalized list that propels you forward toward goals and big projects.

Show Transcript:

The Big Idea

Your to-do list is making you unproductive.

Questions I Answer

  • How can I organize my to do list better?
  • What’s the best way to use my to-do list?
  • How can I be more productive?
  • How can I increase my efficiency at work?

Actions to Take

  • Try doing a daily brain dump… the Daily Download from inkWELL Press is perfect for this!
  • Start creating your own Priority List, not a to-do list, so that you can get the important items done, not just the urgent ones.

Key Topics in the Show

  • Why to-do lists don’t really work in today’s society and workplaces.

  • Understand and combat that feeling that tasks are always eating away at you.

  • How to work more effectively by using the three priority levels that keep your tasks organized.

  • Everyday examples of how you can respond to Insignificant tasks so that you can focus on the Important ones.

  • Tips on how to begin using this new system in any area of your life.

Resources and Links

  • The Daily Planner from inkWELL Press uses the priority list to help you be more productive.
Show Transcript

Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya  Dalton and this is episode 33. Today, we are talking about why to do lists don’t work.  If you’re one of those people who’s been making to do lists for a long time and you  find that somehow at the end of the day you’re still feeling unsuccessful or that you  haven’t accomplished enough, it’s not you. It’s the to do list that’s the problem. All  right. So, before we get there and talk about that, let’s just take a second to have a  quick word from our sponsor and then we’ll start diving in. Today’s episode is brought  to you by FreshBooks. If you are a freelancer or entrepreneur FreshBooks is the  simplest way to be more productive, get organized, and most importantly, get paid.  

 I’ll share a little bit more about FreshBooks later on in today’s episode, but let’s  go ahead and get started talking about why to do lists don’t work. Let’s back up for a  second and understand where did the to do list even come from. What was the origin  of this productivity trick? Well, in 1918 Charles Schwab was the president of the  

largest ship builder and the second largest steel producer in America at the time, The  Bethlehem Steel Corporation and he was looking for a way to increase the efficiency  of his team. So, he arranged a meeting with productivity consultant Ivy Lee. Mr. Lee  asked to meet with each of Schwab’s executives for about 15 minutes to come up  with a solution and when he was asked the cost of developing this new system, Lee  said, nothing, unless it works. After three months you can send me a check for  whatever you feel it is worth to you.  

 So, he created The Ivy Lee Method, which is at the end of each workday write  down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Prioritize the  items in order of their true importance. Then, when you arrive the following morning  concentrate on the first task and finish it before you move on to the second task and  approach the rest of the list in the same way. At the end of the day move any  

unfinished tasks to a new list with six new tasks for the next day and then you just  repeat that. Well, after three months of implementing this system Schwab was so  delighted with the progress his team was making that he wrote Lee a check for 25  thousand dollars, which is about equivalent to 400 thousand dollars now and I  obviously like the idea of an evening list. I mean I credit my five minute evening-dom  as the one thing that has easily doubled my daily productivity.  

 I believe in it so much that I created a notepad called The Daily Download just  to do that exact activity but other people took this idea and they used it as the  springboard for the advent of the to do list and I don’t believe this method accounts  for any of the modern day distractions that we have. I don’t believe to do lists really  work. So, why is that? Well, it’s been shown that our brains can only handle about  seven options before we are overwhelmed. It’s easier to make decisions and act when  

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there are fewer choices. So, looking at a large number of items on your to do list  causes analysis paralysis or it basically sends you back to that default email checking  mode and when your list contains a jumble of time tasks, some that’ll take a few  minutes and other tasks that’ll take an hour or more, well most people will  automatically take care of the shorter tasks, because there’s a psychological payoff.  That little dopamine hit that comes from crossing off something on your to do list, we  do that because it feels good to cross items off our to do lists.  

 A lot of people write down things they already did just to cross them off, but  your list is supposed to be there to get you closer to your goals. It’s not really there  for mood repair and that boost and happiness that you get from the dopamine? Well,  it’s short lived and that really means that those big important tasks that take longer  end up waiting a long time to get crossed off and really, usually it’s the longer tasks  that are truly the important ones. So, we spend hours crossing off items like  responding to email instead of working on the work that will really push us forward  towards our purpose, towards our mission in the long run and when high and low  priority tasks are all mixed together it’s really hard to know what to work on in the  moment. We live in a time when we are so bombarded with so many choices and  opportunities. We have more information and more opportunities available to us now  then ever before in history and that, well that creates overwhelm.  

 You don’t even know where to begin and since all the tasks look equal when  they’re written down, there’s no context for determining what to work on. So, you  end up focusing on a lower priority item instead of the important items and then  those important items slip down on your list until they become urgent fires. So, to do  lists contribute a lot to your stress. It’s known as a Zeigarnik effect. That’s a hard  word to say, the Zeigarnik effect where unfinished tasks contribute to intrusive  uncontrolled thoughts, because we remember the task is not done and it kind of eats  away at us. You know, when you have that feeling where there’s something in the  back of your mind and you just can’t stop thinking about it or you can’t stop stressing  about it? That’s that effect.  

 So, to do lists do work really well to keep track of all the things we need to get  done and haven’t done yet, but that’s really it. They’re not designed to push us to get  the things done that we really need to do or to be more productive. To do lists take  away the focus from working on the important tasks. The tasks we need to  accomplish to create an impact. The ideal solution forces you to look at the limited  time that you have and make choices. We want to define the work that we want to  do. Here’s the other issue with to do lists. To do lists are really easy to add to. You can  just jot another item down, right? So, they tend to get long. Really long. Really, really,  really long. So, it sets us up for a day that is by design, unachievable, because it’s  easy just to throw another item on the old to do list, it grows and grows.  

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 We never get to that feeling of accomplishment. A survey of professionals  conducted by LinkedIn found that only 11% of professionals, globally say that they  have accomplished all the tasks they planned to do at the end of an average workday.  Wow. Here’s the question, if 89% of professionals don’t feel like they’ve accomplished  what they need to, how do they feel at the end of the day? My goal with everything I  do with Inkwell Press and Productivity Paradox is to give you the tools so that at the  end of the day when your head hits the pillow, you feel happy, satisfied and  successful and I’m afraid to do lists just aren’t doing that. We need a mindset shift. No  more to do lists. Let’s start making priority lists.  

 This year is our first year to have a daily planner and for me it was something  that I resisted for a long time because I felt that daily planners have long spaces full  of lines waiting to be filled chocked full of to dos and obviously I always felt it was so  counterproductive and it wasn’t until I shifted my own mindset that I began to see  how creating a planner that focused on priority lists rather than to do lists could start  to make a meaningful impact to each day. So, that’s what I did. I’ve created a system  of priority levels that makes it simple to make your lists and these are more focused.  As Gary Keller says, the more productive people are, the more purpose and priority  are pushing and driving them, but I wanted to make it so streamlined that it would  allow people to focus on their purpose and priority while taking no more time than it  took to write the standard to do list. So, that was my personal challenge that I came  up with for myself.  

 I wanted to create a priority system that was easy to implement and took no  more time than a regular to do list. So, I created my own and I want to talk about this  system in just a second but first I want to give a quick shootout to our sponsor,  FreshBooks. So, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of tracking your time in this  podcast, but it’s even more important if you’re getting paid by the hour. Right? The  FreshBooks team has made it really easy to make sure you’re getting paid for the  time you spend working. They have a complete time tracking feature within the  accounting software. So, it can immediately track the amount of time you’ve spent  plus it seamlessly ties to your clients or customers, making invoices a breeze. I love  how FreshBooks makes sure that you’re spending more time on the things that  matter most and less counting the minutes. So, if you want to give it a try FreshBooks  has kindly offered a free unrestricted trial for my listeners.  

 Just go to Freshbooks.com/paradox and in the section that says, how did you  find us, type in Productivity Paradox. Okay. Let’s get back to talking about priority  lists. So, how did I come up with these priority levels in this system that I’ve created?  Well, I have three levels and the levels represent immediate, important and  insignificant items. So, it’s a marriage of the Eisenhower Matrix and the Triage  method. The Eisenhower Matrix is a method devised by Dwight D. Eisenhower who is  considered by historians as our most productive president and it uses a quadrant  

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system that you have to map out and I felt like that was a little bit cumbersome for a  daily basis. Now, the Triage method is something I discussed at length back in  episode six but it basically was a way for doctors in World War One to try to save as  many people as possible. So they divided patients into three categories in order to  focus their energy accordingly. Correctly prioritizing patients allowed the doctors to  affect the most change possible and made a significant impact on mortality rates and  I really liked that.  

 Obviously, in life or death situations it’s really important to prioritize. So,  correctly prioritizing your tasks allows you to affect the most change in your life and  move that ball forward to your goals. So, while they may not be life or death like the  Triage method, a priority system will definitely improve your life. So, let’s start by  talking about the difference between important and urgent. Important tasks  contribute to our long term mission and our goals, while urgent items are time  sensitive. They’re not necessarily important but these are the things that are shouting  out at us. They have arrows and exclamation points next to them. Urgent mode is  going to put us in a reactive mindset, because we’re working against the clock.  Important mode puts you in a proactive state and allows you to stay level headed and  focused. So, I think it’s really important to understand that distinction between urgent  and important, because too often we treat all of our urgent tasks as the top priority,  even when they’re not important.  

 I really think that’s important to understand and now that we understand the  difference between the two, let’s dig in to how to divide up your tasks and create a  priority lists. So, the first one is immediate and these are items that are both  important and they’re urgent. So, these are time sensitive tasks that also move you  closer to your goals. These can be actions like signing up for classes before the  enrollment deadline if you’re in graduate school or making product listings before the  upcoming launch if you own your own business. You want to spend some of your  time here but we want to make sure that we make plans so that important tasks don’t  become urgent if they don’t have to. Here’s a key note. We don’t want to spend the  majority of our time here because this is urgent mode. That reactive mode. So, you’re  not able to take the time to really focus on quality, because when you’re in that  reactive mode that we talked about a minute ago you feel more rushed.  

 So, that’s our first priority level is immediate. Next we have important. So,  these are items and tasks that are important but not urgent. This is where you should  be spending the majority of your time. These are the tasks that don’t have a looming  deadline or the deadline is far away and these are the things that are going to move  you towards your goal or fulfill your mission and purpose but because they’re not  urgent these are the type of tasks that often get pushed aside. We need to put these  items up high on our list and place them under this headline of important so they’re  given the main focus of your day. Being in a situation without a looming deadline  

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allows you do your best work, because you have the time to really push yourself and  give yourself the time to think of creative solutions. You’re not in panic mode when  you’re thinking this way because when you’re rushed you don’t have that luxury.  

 Often, these tasks can be habits that we’re trying to set, like doing yoga twice  a week or long term projects like developing a business plan but when they aren’t  scheduled anywhere they don’t ever get done. They tend to be the first tasks set  aside while we take care of those urgent tasks and you’ll notice in our new planner  that’s launching in September this priority level gets the most lines in the priority list,  because this is where you want to spend the majority of your focus. We want to  spend most of our time on the important tasks. So then we have a third priority level  and that one is called insignificant. It’s urgent but not important and I’ve heard some  people push back on that term insignificant here, so let me clarify. We gave this  priority level this name, insignificant, to remind ourselves that urgent but not  important tasks should not be at the top of our lists, by default, because they are not  significant.  

 They are insignificant by nature. It’s a mindset shift of bumping these  seemingly significant tasks down to the bottom of the lists, but they’re not  significant. They’re insignificant because they’re not important because we want to  make sure we’re working on the important tasks first. Think about what you could get  rid of completely that’s in this section, either by deleting it or delegating it. Do you  for example have to sort all the laundry yourself or can other members of the  household do that? Do you have to pick up the phone every time you get a call in the  middle of your workday or can you set a boundary for when you have the time to  devote to talking? Many people are reactors. They respond to action items others  have set for them before tending to their own important items.  

 This can include things like social media notifications, meaningless chores,  work tasks, things like that and these items feel urgent because they’re important to  someone else and they’re treating them like they’re important but urgent tasks are  never ending and they tend to multiply. As soon as one gets done five more pop up.  So, we zero in on a goal without really asking if it’s the right one for us. You can be  busy doing a lot of good things but still miss out on the most important things. Busy  is a four letter word and recognize that busy-ness doesn’t mean you’re being  purposeful or that you’re making the most impact that you really want to have. Ask  yourself, if I’m not taking care of the most important things, why am I so busy? What  am I spending my time on and that’s what I want to challenge you with today. If you  are feeling so stretched thin and like you are busy all day long, I understand that  feeling.  

 I have had that feeling myself and it can feel hard when you feel like there are  so many things on that to do list. This is why it’s really important to ask yourself those  

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questions. If I’m not taking care of the most important things, why am I so busy?  When you think about what matters to you, are you really spending time on those  things? Why? Why aren’t you spending time on those things? Isn’t that really what  you want to do with your time? When you have your priorities in mind it makes it so  much easier to cut through all of that noise and all of that clutter that’s around us,  because there is so much noise and so much clutter, but having that priority is like  having a lighthouse. It shines bright and you know just where it is you want to go, and  this is where the priority list really shines its brightest.  

 You’ve heard me say a hundred times is overwhelm is not having too much to  do? It’s not knowing where to start? That’s what the priority list does for you. It tells  you where to start. When you have those three levels of immediate, important and  insignificant and you write your tasks under the correct heading, you know where to  start. You know you want to start with immediate because those have to be done first  and they’re important. You’re not going to be doing the insignificant tasks first. This is  going to be your guide to help you through each and every day, so that when your  head does hit the pillow you do feel happy, you do feel satisfied and you do feel  successful and isn’t that really what life is about? Happiness and figuring out what the  things that are important to you and your values and your purpose and that is my  wish for you with this priority list system.  

 I’m going to go through all of those different levels of the priority system on  the show notes. If you’d like to look at those you can find those at Inkwellpress.com/ podcast under episode 33. Now, I hope you’re really enjoying this season where we  are talking all about systems. Next week we’re talking about my all time favorite  system of all, automations and we have been having some great conversations in the  meantime in our Facebook group, so I really encourage you to join us there. You can  join at Inkwellpress.com/group and there’s a little sign up form for you to sign up and  we send you all the information you need to become part of our community. I’d love  to see you there. All right. Until next time, happy planning.  

**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.

Tanya Dalton is a woman on a mission to help women be more productive. She is a keynote speaker helping with time management, goal setting and finding your purpose at work.