It's the most basic time-management tool out there. So, why are most of us doing it wrong?

Lists are the most basic time-management tool we have. We all (obsessively) use them. They're supposed to help us prioritize our work and avoid feeling overwhelmed. But rarely do the lists we make do either of those things.

So, what are we doing wrong? Do you:

  • Have multiple lists in multiple places?
  • Have dozens of items included--some that have taken up permanent residency?
  • Mix and match long-term and short-term items like "get a PhD" and "go to the car wash"?
  • Rarely actually consult your list once it's made?
  • Start with the easy stuff?
  • Add more stuff in the morning, as you first read your email with a cup of coffee?
  • Tie your self-worth--or at least your view of whether it was a "good day"--to the number of cross outs?

Avoid these listing pitfalls by sticking with these four rules.

  1. Pick one place for your list. Just one. There are many great list-making and time-management tools out there. Personally, however, I stick with a simple word document that I update in the evening for the next day, then print first thing in the morning.
  2. Write everything down. Once it's on the list, you can relax a little. It's off your mind--at least in that active part of your brain that tries to keep reminding us to do important things.
  3. Clear the clutter. Until my recent purge, there were items on my list that were really great...ideas. They were tips and tricks picked up from reading marketing books, looking at food blogs, and talking to friends. But they were less "to-do" items and more things I wanted to hang onto for future consideration. I know this because they never got done, and yet my life and business went on. It's OK to have a handful of stretch items on your list, but if they're hanging out more than a week, let them go. If you want to be able to come back to them, put a running list in a separate file on your computer. This can be a resource the next time you're feeling stuck in a rut and need something new to do.
  4. Organize your tasks. I used to organize my list by client and topic. It was great to see everything I owed to a certain client in one place, but it did nothing to help me manage my day. I recently changed this approach, and it's made a huge difference. I now organize my list by type of work. All of my thinking and writing tasks are together because they take more dedicated brain power, and I know the time of day that's most conducive to making progress on these items. My client scheduling, email follow-ups, and administrative items are together because I need to have my email open and phone handy. Blocking these off allows me to do a bunch at once and then close my email or hide my phone to avoid distractions.

Listing is a basic time and energy management tool, and one that I can't live without. Lists help us get focused and organized--when used appropriately. They can also help build a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, when you're actually checking things off your list. But when used improperly, lists can just lead to guilt and feeling overwhelmed.

Listing, of course, is just the first step. Prioritization is next. Pick your most important items for the day or risk fussing with a bunch of easy tasks that won't move you any closer to your goals.

Self-discipline comes when you have your list updated. Picking just three important things that tie directly to your goals or commitments each day is a great place to start.