the 3 lists you should be making

& how to stop letting to-do lists control your life

Nancy Chen
Dec 7, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Marijana1 from Pixabay

“Wake up.”

“Brush teeth.”

“Make coffee.”

If you get great satisfaction from checking boxes, your to-do list may look something like this: full of tasks that you’re going to complete anyway, so you can get the feeling of completing something.

Unfortunately, that leaves the more important tasks that you actually need to accomplish or the ones that you are difficult to tackle lost in this plethora of other things to do.

It also makes for endless to-do lists… which creates the feeling of running on a hamster wheel, fighting against time to get everything done.

Here’s a secret: Your to-list is always going to be incomplete if you create it like this. There’s no way to finish everything you want in a day because tasks will keep adding up.

I’ve put together three lists that you should make to replace the one very long to-do list, so you can stop living your life glued to the Notes app of your iPhone or a post-it.

1. The “Errands” / “Short Term Priorities” List

I actually break these out into two lists:

If you think of the Eisenhower matrix, which breaks down urgent tasks vs. important tasks and everything in between, these would be the urgent and important tasks.

Eisenhower matrix — examples — nancy chen
Eisenhower matrix — examples — nancy chen
Created by me (Nancy Chen)

P.S. According to the matrix, you should ideally not do any tasks that you deem not important. Either don’t do them (the not urgent and not important) or delegate them (the urgent and not important).

Obviously, there are somethings that you can’t delegate (for example, work tasks that were delegated to you because your boss deemed them urgent and not important enough for them to do) or laundry (urgent and not important, but you can’t always pay for a laundry service to it unless you’re willing to spend that extra money).

But it’s that lens that you should look at these tasks through that matters.

Things like laundry, taking out the trash, checking the mail, mailing packages, vacuuming, etc. Honestly, things that I personally always put off because they’re time-consuming and annoying (if I got a personal assistant, I would have them mail packages for me 100%).

I prefer to tackle this entire list in one go.

It’s the most effective way I’ve found to handle errands — almost like ripping off a bandage. Gretchen Rubin calls it a “Power Hour” to power through all these things on her list at once; I find that it can actually take 3–4 hours.

Whenever you think of an errand that you need to do, add it to a running list (on a whiteboard in your home, in your Notes app, in your daily planner, on a Post-It…), and then block off time in your week to do it. Preferably on a day where you don’t have much going on and don’t need to do deep work.

I like early Monday mornings, Friday evenings, or during the day on Sunday (the downside of Sunday is that some places, like the post office, are closed).

2. The “Long Term Goals” / “Needle-Mover” List

This is the work that’s important but not urgent.

If it’s a personal goal (write a book, develop a course, build a company), it doesn’t really matter to anyone but you if you take steps to do the work here. There’s no one setting deadlines but you; there are no consequences if it doesn’t happen (other than you not living out your dreams as soon as possible).

That means you should take some time to:

  1. Arrange the items on this list in order of priority, just like your other lists.
  2. Take the top item (the lofty goal) and break it into digestible steps.
  3. Set deadlines for each of the steps.
  4. Move these steps to List 1 (short term priorities) so you’ll accomplish them.

Check back on this long-term goal list to track your progress — and it’s okay if these longer-term goals change as you work on them because you change over time too.

You can apply this to work projects or goals too. It can be even easier to get lost in the day-to-day work and leave the big projects untouched because of the idea of urgency.

But you could be leaving your company’s revenue on the table.

Eisenhower matrix — to do — nancy chen
Eisenhower matrix — to do — nancy chen
Created by me (Nancy Chen)

3. The “I’ve Done” List

It’s important to celebrate what you’ve done, but an important part of this is reflecting on what you’ve done.

Think quality rather than quantity.

If your “I’ve done” list is full of things that don’t really move the needle, maybe that’s why you feel stagnant.

If your “I’ve done” list only has one item from your needle-mover list but nothing else, then maybe you need to spend a little time dedicated to urgent tasks.

This is why I like to either make physical checklists (I use a Post-it/day in my Passion Planner) or keep a running note on my iPhone/Macbook (pro is that it syncs across devices) of the things I’ve done that week (command-shift-L to create a checkable list!), or both.

example i’ve done list
example i’ve done list
An example of one of my phone/laptop notes (bolded are things that must get done)

Final notes and tips

If you find yourself pushing certain things off of your to-do list and “saving them for later,” these are things that will:

  1. Never get done
  2. Probably shouldn’t get done, because they don’t truly matter (if they did, you would do them earlier)

If it’s something you actually need to do, do it now (today).

RECAP (;tldr)

Make these 3 lists:

  1. Short-term priorities (break into errands/actual priorities): Don’t focus 100% of your time on these — make sure you’re prioritizing them and working on items that came from list #2 as well.
  2. Long-term priorities (things that will move the needle but aren’t necessarily urgent): Break these down into short-term priorities so you will get them done.
  3. Things you’ve done: Reflect on these and figure out if you’re spending your time on the appropriate things.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Nancy Chen

Written by

wellness blogger | psych/human behavior nerd | email marketing @perfectketo | I get weirdly enthusiastic about productivity ideas www.nourishbynancy.com

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade