Daily to-do lists are effective whether you dictate them into a thousand-dollar smartphone or scribble them on the back of a crusty old envelope. They're a one-page instruction manual for success and they can inject you with a little hit of euphoria every time you scratch an item off the list. 

In short, they're one of the most perfect productivity tools ever created. But just like any other powerful tool, they can create more work than they're worth if you misuse them. I learned this lesson recently when I took on a couple of extra tasks at work. They're major tasks, and I have a narrow window in which to complete them. 

Prioritizing was painful. Sometimes you have to drop cherished goals, or even renegotiate commitments made to cherished people. I learned that systemizing the process helps. When you break a job down into its basic parts, it's easier to fly through it. 

Best practice is to review your to-do list each night for the following day. With the single-minded ferocity of the Terminator, assign each item to one of four categories: 

1. Pound it out.

Decide what you can get done in five minutes. I plow through this minutiae the same night I review tomorrow's to-do list. Usually they're things I can handle through email--I need to share this thought with that person; I need to make this introduction to so-and-so; etc. 

Most of these tasks take a couple of seconds. I clean them out rapidly, because otherwise my list looks longer. Even if half the stuff is negligible in terms of time consumed, in my head it's twice as much work.

Never let your list accumulate so much minor housework that it creates an illusion that you're behind. It can overwhelm you, so don't psych yourself out.  

2. Postpone until later. 

A guy who worked for me for seven years recently hit me up and asked if we could get together for a friendly visit. I was looking forward to it, but as soon as I saw it on the list I knew it was a can I'd have to kick down the road.

I called him to share the bad news, assuming I'd reach his voicemail. To be radically transparent, I was kind of relieved that I wouldn't have to tell him in person. 

No such luck. He picked up the phone after a few rings, as cheerful and energetic as ever. I decided not to beat around the bush; I told him that I had exactly four minutes to catch up and that we wouldn't be able to chat again until the end of November.

He laughed his butt off and said he completely understood my situation. Be brave and figure out what's on your list that can wait till later. Postponement isn't the end of the world, and you'll feel no end of relief once you get it over with.

3. Appoint a proxy. 

There are things on my list that I don't have time to do, but that absolutely still have to get done. I can resolve this sticky contradiction through the exquisite art of delegation.

Delegation is a lot harder than merely assigning one or more of your commitments to someone else. It can seem crazily counterintuitive. For one thing, the other person probably has plenty on their table, too, and it can be awkward to ask them to pick up your slack.

For another, if it's on your list, chances are great that you're the best person for the job. Console yourself with the fact that even if the delegated results are only 50 percent as good, 50 percent is a hell of a lot better than nothing.  

Sometimes you'll learn that your delegatee is ideal for the job. An investor once asked me to jump on a call with someone seeking information on the Utah labor market, for example.

I said yes initially, but then passed the buck to my business partner, Caton Hansen, who actually lives in the Beehive State. I killed two birds with one stone, and everyone was happier for it. 

4. Pulverize. 

Occasionally, a project will pop up that's not integral to my company's success, but that for one reason or another felt important when I added it to the list. Now that it's creating superfluous pressure and anxiety, I delete it.  

I kiss it goodbye forever; I accept that it's not getting done. If it organically pops back onto my radar a couple months later, fine. If not, hasta la vista, baby.

If you're anything like me, you're confident that you can handle whatever life floods you with. There's a fine line between "up to your neck" and "in over your head," however. Master your to-do list now, before the water rises. 

Published on: Sep 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.