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You Are NEVER Going to Complete Your To Do List

by Laurel Plum

Does your to do list beat you up just a bit each day? Or maybe you already gave up on to do lists because they were  just one more stress you decided you could eliminate.

I personally feel that a to do list of sorts is necessary to keep things running well.  If for no other reason, they give me a specific spot to jot things down. Ever heard the phrase Mind Dump? (Here are a couple of good references if you have not – Mind Dump and Mind Dump. I highly recommend the practice! That is why I suggest you keep several notebooks.)  For me, the majority of things running around through my head most of the time are things I need to do , want to do, or have been requested to do. I use my to do list to declutter and clear my mind.  Besides, I am not the spring chicken I once was – the ole memory, she ain’t what she used to be. If I do not take the time to physically write it down, chances are good it will not even have a slim chance of getting done.

If there is only one thing about to do lists that you ever get from this site, I hope it will be to change the way you look at it and change the way they make you feel. Let’s give it a try.

The Never Ending List

Much more important than what lists you keep, how you lay out your lists, or even how many lists you keep is your perception of your to do list.

First, you need to know right now that the majority of us are NEVER going to complete our to do lists.

It is not a personal failing of any of us. It simply has to do with the things most of us add to the list. We DO treat it as a mind dump even if we have never heard of that phrase.

It is exactly like getting a giant plate before you go through an all you can eat buffet. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Even at one teaspoon portions of each thing, we add so many different things that the plate fills up. There are only two options that result. Either a lot of stuff is left on the plate or someone ends up sick. With our lists, it is our intentions outweighing our capabilities, but the result is the same.

So take a few minutes right now to repeat “I am NEVER going to complete my to do list” over and over until you know it as a fact. Do NOT take on the guilt or depression. Even if you are a type-A super woman, with everything under control, perfectly juggling all of those balls in the air, it is just a matter of fact that you will probably never, ever, even in a thousand years complete that list.

There are just too many things on there already and you will add a million more things as time strolls by. Some of the items you write down today, you will decide later are unnessesary or that you no longer want to do them, but many people will leave them on their list inteaded of marking it out simply because the item was not actually completed. The list is impossible to complete simply because there is always something that could be done.

That Does Not Make The List A Lost Cause

Now, just because you will not finish the list is no reason to give up on it. It does serve a great purpose. You will get a lot more things done with one than without one.

So the next thing you need to do is to change it to a simple tool that helps you get things done instead of a cruel task master that whips you daily into guilt, depression, or frustration because of all of the things left undone.

I am going to tell you a story you have probably heard before in some form or another. There has even been a link to one version of it in the sidebar of the site.  I want you to repeat it to yourself often while thinking about your to do list. It changes the meaning of the story a bit, but hopefully it will also change the way you feel about all of your chores, tasks and of your to do list as a whole.

The Starfish Story or Making A Difference

An old man walked up a shore littered with thousands of starfish, beached and dying after a storm.
A young man was picking them up and flinging them back into the ocean.
“Why do you bother?” the old man scoffed. “You’re not saving enough to make a difference.”
The young man picked up another starfish and sent it spinning back to the water. “Made a difference to that one,” he said.

If you look at each little task as if it were one of those starfish, you will begin to realize that you do make a difference every day. It is not about all of the boxes left unchecked. With each and every step forward, you ARE making improvements. You ARE making an accomplishment. You ARE making a difference. With each single step.

Now ease up the pressure you have placed on yourself. Read the Starfish story to yourself while thinking about your to do list as many times as it takes to be able to recite the story in your sleep.

How To Make A To Do List

When it comes to keeping a to do list, a lot of people again make it a lot more difficult than it needs to be. There is not a right or wrong way as long as it works for you, but usually the simpler it is, the more likely you will be to use it.


You need to know there is a difference in a project list and a to do list.  A project can have a ton of little smaller steps that need to be done specifically for that project. You can put the project on your master to do list, but do not put all of the smaller steps on it. They will get lost and clutter up your main list.

For projects, I keep a 3 ring notebook that I use as a planner for all of our remodeling and family projects and some of my craft projects. Depending on the project, I write out separate sheets for all of the to dos and supply lists that go with it. The project as a whole goes onto my master to do list as a single item.

We are big into DIY and I am big into crafting, so we frequently have a ton of projects all in progress at any given moment. I have to keep project sheets to keep me straight and make it easier to pick something back up later. You may not need to.

Regular Repeated Tasks

A lot of to dos actually have no business being on a regular to do list. They are those repeatitive chores. Think of all of those daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal items. There are other ways of working with them. They can be set out on project sheets in a household planner like the spring and fall home maintenance lists listed before, or set up in some other system similar to my cleaning routine.

Most people tend to waste time and energy writing those things down over and over. And some tasks are bound to be overlooked here or there. It is fairly easy to grab a single reference and work through it adjusting as needed than it is to put yourself on the spot to remember every little thing each and every time.

The Master List

For my master to do list, I keep a big multi-subject spiral notebook where I continue to add anything and everything that comes to mind. It holds all of the requests, and all of the things I want to do, projects, some infrequent chores, you name it.  I do not prioritize this list. It is just an ongoing, running, ever expanding list.

Immediate Items

I keep tons of little 3 x 5 spiral notebooks everywhere, too. I keep two on my desk. One for random things or mind leaks and one as an “Urgent To Do” list.

Most things on my master list do not have to be done right now or as absolutely as soon as possible. Most things have no time restraints or have time leeway.  I use to feel that a lot of things needed to be done “now”. One blessed day, I realized that that was a stupid expectation I placed upon myself or let someone else place on me. I want and need to get to some things sooner rather than later, but only a small handful of things truly have to be done immediately. I add those things to the “Urgent To Do” list.

And by immediately, I mean tonight or tomorrow. If it can wait a little longer, I put it on the master list. If anything has a time restraint, I write in the date beside the item on the running list and highlight it in some way.

This works especially well for me for several reasons. The urgent items do not get overlooked on the running Master list.It keeps my urgent list super short so I am less overwhelmed. And most importantly for my state of mind, it helps me to realize that a very large portion of the things I need to do are actually extras, no, they are additional benefits that I do for myself or my family. They are starfish.


Keeping the two to do lists and systems for repeated tasks work for me at home.  I think a big component of why they work for me is that having these things compartmentalized really affects (effects? I can never keep it straight) my perception of them and so my emotional and stress states.

But I am always still looking for shortcuts and tricks to incorporate into what I already am doing.  I am a fan of Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management. He has now come up with a super simple method of keeping a list that we typically think of as a to do list. He is offering the full step by step instructions for free on his site. It is super easy for anyone to pick up whether you are just starting a list or are thinking of casting off a more complicated system you already have in place.

Check out Autofocus for yourself. He is continuing to tweak it to get it to work for anyone at home and at work without letting things fall through the cracks so make sure to sign up for the newsletter.

After reading his instructions, I expanded the things I include on my master list considerably even to include books I want to read and flowers I want to add to my landscape that were previously listed elsewhere.  I do still use my urgent list and my daily systems for the monotonous repetitive tasks instead of writing them again and again, but I have been actively using Autofocus to really work my way through my Master List. I did not originally think it was much different from what I was already doing, but I have been able to cast more starfish since I started using his specific method.

Your Turn

I would love to find out what you are doing or have come across.  Tell us about it, link to it, just please share it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Laura July 22, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Funny that you should write about this – I was just thinking about this topic this morning! There’s a lot to wade through with this post, so I’ll take my time discovering everything in it. Thanks for your encouragement and help!

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