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Episode 99 | TO-DO LISTS

This episode is sponsored by TIDY BOX. Branding, marketing and graphic design.

When you make a to-do list, you should also make a to-not-do list. Warren Buffet was asked about the secret to success, and he said that it was saying no to almost everything. Some of those little tasks won't matter as long as you get the big tasks done. Brian Tracy

I chose that opening quote quite deliberately as it Segways very nicely into last weeks show, OPENING & CLOSING DOORS. Making difficult decisions about what is important and unimportant as well as urgent and non-urgent is just another essential productivity skill hat you have to enact. Please go back and listen if you want to understand exactly what I mean when I talk about opening and closing doors and getting things done without distractions or overwhelm.

But, today is all about to-do lists and what is there to learn about them? I hear you cry. Well, quite a lot as it happens, so listen up and settle down for another exciting, or at least vaguely interesting, episode as I tell you more.

I’ve been toying with this episode for a long time and nearly called it making your to do list into a do list, as I felt that it made it a little more immediate but then I though it should instead be called turning your to-do list into a done list. Both of these assumed that people could create a half decent to-do list in the first place so that’s what brought me full circle and onto this. To do lists themselves come down to planning so that’s what I want to get into first.

How much time do you spend on planning your days? 5 minutes? 10? How many of you spend no time at all on planning and just go with the flow and if you do that – how’s it working out for you? Well as you are listening to this show I’d guess you do at least try, now and again, to make SOME plans but creating a task list should not be some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s to do list, the more likely the list is going to be realistic.

That’s really my first tip here: Don’t rush creating your task list—spend some time on the planning and isolate yourself from distractions. This way, you can actually think the tasks through before you put them on your to-do list. I can see when I work with others on this sort of thing not only how little time they actually spend planning, sometimes as little as 30 seconds, but how its squeezed into their day as a very unwelcome chore. Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it and put that time aside, uninterrupted at a point in the day while you still have energy. Not as you sit during an advert break bringing some tv show but perhaps during an earlier break with a cup of tea and no distractions.

Some people have mentioned to me that they just don’t like having to do lists. They say it stresses them out but psychology Today author Peg Streep explains that most “People love to-do lists because the act of making one makes you feel more in control and, for those who procrastinate, gives you the illusion of being proactive. Note the word ‘illusion’ because if you don’t act on the list, you haven’t accomplished anything other than creating it.”

My 2nd tip about to-do lists is that the very act of mentally organising your work can take a huge load off our minds, leaving us satisfied that in some small way we’ve made the world a more organized place. When you plan your days, you begin to truly understand the tasks you are about to do and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary because you are then able to identify and make progress with the tasks that matter the most. Far from causing you stress, this action of planning will at least lay out a path for you to follow through to completion.

Mark Twain said “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.” Unquote – and that really represents my 3rd tip for creating achievable to-do lists. If you haven’t broken down your larger tasks into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done. This is something I cover in my episode How Do You eat An Elephent? The short answer to which is of course, one piece at a time, so split large complex tasks down into smaller more edible ones to make those to-do lists more achievable. The devil is in the detail as they say and again this comes from POINT NUMBER 1 planning.

Tip number 4 - You should have separate lists for your tasks and your goals. The idea is to not put goals on your task list at all. I’ve covered goals in multiple episodes so I don’t want to go on about them, but I also don’t want you to get confused here either. Successfully completing your daily to-do list tasks will lead toward your larger your goals, but goals are larger desires and not something that you can achieve over the course of the day. For example write a feature film script is a goal whereas write 5 pages of my feature film script is an achievable to-do list task.

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. Hans Hofmann

– and that one leads me nicely to tip number 5 Brevity is a virtue so Keep It Brief By doing so you can quickly look over at your list and know what needs to get done. How you can do this is by focusing on the keywords of specific tasks and not dragging them out. For example, say your email inbox is a mess and you want to clean it up. Instead of writing a lengthy sentence, keep it short and write something like “respond to emails and delete spam for 30 min.” or simply “respond to emails.” That way you’re spending less time writing the task and you’re relying on trigger words to get your mind to recall specific details for that task.

I’ll call this one tip number 6 although it’s kinda in the same vein - You may also find that putting a limit on the number of items on your list will make it all the more achievable although this simply may not always be possible. Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends on your situation, but I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day. Certain tasks are very quick, so it’s easier to include more of them on certain days.

I should possibly have talked about this first as it’s a vital productivity skill in itself, but tip number 7 is to prioritize the items that on your to do list before you even start. The most important items on your list are known as MITs – MOST IMPORTANT TASKS – so when planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible. Another way to look at this is to tackle the largest and most intimidating task first. Mark Twain talked about this too –

He said “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” And Brian Tracy wrote a book on the theme, he says “Eat that frog! If you have to eat 3 frogs, eat the biggest and ugliest one first.”

You will be tempted to do the easier tasks first before getting to the bigger task, but the problem is that these tasks—even the easy ones—drain your energy and if you have a really big task to complete, chances are that’s going to be on your mind over the course of the day. That means you’re spending energy just thinking about it. All of that wouldn’t be a problem if that big intimidating task was dealt with first thing in the morning. I should also clarify here that the most intimidating job, may not be the most important one or even the largest task of the day. It could be something as simple as making a difficult telephone call or just dealing with an urgent and potentially costly admin task like putting in late accounts.

A good follow on from that one is to Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks so go through your what you have written down and decide if you really need each one. This is tip number 8 and on of my favorite Peter Drucker quotes covers it very well. There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. It’s such a key element of productivity that I want you to burn it into your minds.

I mentioned this earlier in passing but Give Yourself Deadlines is tip number 9. Always remember PARKINSON’S LAW that work expands to fill time allotted. I don’t want to go into too much detail but it’s a fact of life that cannot be ignored. If you’ve to submit a report for some reason, and you’re given a week to do it. You’ll likely work on it off and on throughout the week or you’ll put it off until the night before and finish it. But if you’re given that same task and only allotted an hour to complete it? You’ll likely get the it done, but you’ll prioritize the main, important points and highlight those rather than fill it with unnecessary fluff. You can avoid this by simply giving yourself deadlines. When it comes to to-do lists, my suggestion is to give yourself a day to complete the tasks there. This is enough pressure and incentive for you to work hard on them.

If tasks continually slip off your day planner, then you may be giving yourself a perpetual way out of these scheduled plans so tip number 10 is to make yourself a promise that you will complete the tasks you have allotted yourself on time, and only put back tasks if you absolutely have to. Don’t be afraid to look at your to-do list and make changes to it though as there may be a possibility that your to-do list is getting lengthy and you’re setting unrealistic expectations that you can finish it all. By giving yourself the opportunity to revise your to-do list, you’re allowing yourself to spread out your tasks rather than have them clumped up. This helps your mindset as you’re not overwhelmed by the list.

Tip 11 is to use Checklists for Complex Tasks as this will allow you to ensure that you’re getting everything done the proper way and that you’re not missing any key steps.

Not a million miles from that is to Batch Similar Tasks which is tip number 12 - Look at your list, and find out if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way, you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier. If you need to know more about batching, then jump back to episode 95 where I cover that topic in some detail.

If new tasks come up as you work, note them down, but don’t do them right away. This saves you the bother of having to dwell on that idea rather than focusing on the task at hand. It also saves you from having to recall what the task is when you come to write up the next day’s to-do list at the end of the day. That’s tip number 13 btw.

Number 14 is something I talk about a lot. Don’t just delete your tasks as you complete the, but put a line through them instead. In effect what I am asking you to do is to create a DONE LIST because it will be inspiring. The example I like to give is the cycle of productivity. If you omit the well-done phase the part of the cycle in which you congratulate yourself on your efforts then you are setting yourself up for a short circuit later on. Giving yourself a pat on the back for what you have achieved will help to give you drive and complete more and more things in future.

Number 15. Do Some Prep. Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance because it will make our life significantly easier as you go along. I batch prepare the ideas for the show with a small amount of research to get me thinking a few days before and I’ll even make up the promo images before I even think about recording sometimes. You may think this is part of tip number 2 organizing your work but it’s not really. That’s about organizing the to do list. When I say do some prep I mean prep the tasks themselves, build that into your strategy. As I said before, the devil is in the detail so don’t forget that. Prepping the work, van make it all go much faster when you actually come to handle those tasks.

Tip number 16 is to utilise technology. There are various to-do list apps out there like REMEMBER THE MILK or ASANA. Find one you like and use it. If you are into the pomodoro technique, which I cover in episode 86, then use an app like FOREST to help you get things done.. If you prefer of course you can go analogue and use good old paper and pen, and an oven timer for the pomodoro.

I sometimes struggle with figuring ow long certain tasks take so I’ll chuck in another little tip here to help you with that. Tip 17 is to Track Your Recurring Tasks to figure out exactly how long they take. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your schedule if you will be able to manage it in that time.

Tip 18 is to Understand that transition times eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task to-do list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding an extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.

And finally Tim Ferriss suggests you should ”Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening.”

And that is my final tip - tip number 19. If you do it too far in advance the situation is very likely to change, but if you leave it till the day itself you are eating in to the time you should be using to complete it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan weeks and months but the specifics of a to do list should be left till the day before. I sometimes struggle when

I’ve leaned heavily here and there on an article from and they wrap up with a load of questions you may want to consider. These are more or less lifted directly but I think they make some truly excellent points.

They ask :

· What else do I have on my schedule? This question refers to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are traveling, make sure that your list reflects this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you’ll get only a fraction of them done.

· Is the task a gatekeeper? This question asks if the task is blocking other tasks that need to be executed. Every once in a while, we might have a task that has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then can you take care of the following tasks. I’ll be tackling gatekeepers of a different type in another episode.

· Do I have icebergs on my list? This question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought – The iceberg reference is of course talking about only the tip of the iceberg being above the water, with the majority of the ice is below. If you spot one, use tip number 3 and break it down into smaller more manageable parts.

· Is the task distraction-proof? Not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.

The article covers a few other great tips that I want t pour in here.

· Try to eliminate the sources for your tasks. This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list. One thing I hate when responding to complex emails and getting them behind me is getting a short ill thought out reply from someone 5 minutes after I’ve spent 2 hours dealing with it that causes me even more hassle. Just saying!

· Make your list a closed one This one comes from Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list. When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.

Summing up

It takes a bit of practice to create a great to-do list but your efforts will always be worthwhile if you take it seriously. I’ll sum up simply by restating al 19 of today’s tips in short form.

  1. Don’t rush creating your task list

  2. Organizing your work can take a huge load off our minds

  3. If you haven’t broken down your larger tasks into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them don't

  4. You should have separate lists for your tasks and your goals

  5. Brevity is a virtue so Keep It Brief

  6. Putting a limit on the number of items on your list will make it all the more achievable

  7. Prioritize the items that on your to do list before you even start.

  8. Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks

  9. Give Yourself Deadlines

  10. Make yourself a promise that you will complete the tasks you have allotted yourself on time

  11. Checklists for Complex Tasks

  12. Batch Similar Tasks

  13. If new tasks come up as you work, note them down, but don’t do them right away

  14. Create a DONE LIST

  15. Do Some Prep.

  16. Utilize technology.

  17. Track Your Recurring Tasks

  18. Understand that transition times eat your time

  19. Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening

If you want to know more there will be a full transcript of this episode and of its sources etc only on the official website

Call to Action

Today I’m launching a short Indiegogo campaign to support the next couple of years of the podcast’s website hosting, some marketing stuff and another 50 episodes of the show if anyone is interested. I’ll post links in the show notes and of course I’ll be all over social media with it so if you love the show and want to see it continue, I’d really appreciate your input. Even if you are not donating, then a simple retweet or share would make all the difference. As a productivity side note, these campaign’s can often garner more listeners just by the bump in profile that comes with them.

Next time:

Next week’s show is episode 100! And in it I will cover 10 of the almightiest productivity techniques from the last 100 shows. It’s called 10 productivity superpowers and it will be released a week today.


Twitter: @Tidy_BoxUK

Facebook: @tidyboxdesign

I realise that to-do lists are not for everyone but I hope that even those opposed to the idea have picked up a few useful tips from today’s episode. For you guys though let me end with a final quote from Karl Lagerfeld who said, If someone gives me a to-do list, I say 'thank you, this is nice.' One needs things to throw in the wastebasket.

Now take control of your own destiny, keep on shootin’ and join me next time on FILM PRO PRODUCTIVITY AND SUCCESS!

• The music you can hear right now is Adventures by A Himitsu

• You can view the show notes for this episode on the official website

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Thanks: A Himitsu Music: Adventures by A Himitsu


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