3 Reasons Why Your To-Dos Are Not Getting Done

Amy Kulisheck
May 18, 2018

List makers – we know who we are, we rely on lists, maybe enjoy creating them, and definitely derive great joy from the act of marking something DONE. However, according to The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List, by Janet Choi and Walter Chen of iDoneThis, 41% of to-do list items NEVER get done. That means you are likely spending time writing the same tasks on your new lists wondering why it is you just can’t seem to ever make progress on them. To make sure your lists are a tool for productivity rather than procrastination, take a fresh look at how you define your tasks and how you structure your lists themselves and consider these common problems that might be preventing you from conquering more of the 59% of tasks still on your list:

1) Your items may be too big
A to-do list is not a place for milestones or grand achievements. You would never write “pursue a PhD”.  You shouldn’t even write “apply for PhD program”. Both of these “tasks” require a series of dependent and independent steps that you need to complete before crossing them off the list. Seemingly smaller tasks can also fall into this trap: “Plan George’s birthday party” may or may not be helpful to you. If you interpret it as a reminder to take 10 minutes and generate a list of the specific things you need to do (find venue, create guest list, buy invitations, order cake, etc.- each of which will end up on your to-do list later) then writing “Plan George’s birthday party” is perfect. But…If looking at a task on your list causes you to feel stuck or overwhelmed, ask yourself:

  • What is the FIRST thing I need to do?
  • How would I START?
  • When I imagine myself doing (X) what do I see myself doing?
  • When I imagine that task already being done – what is different?

The answers to those questions are your REAL tasks for your list.
Still unsure how to even start? 
Acknowledge THAT and add “Figure out how to get started on X” to your list.

2) Your tasks may not be in your control
None of us lives in a bubble. We interact with others to get things done. With that interaction is… the…inevitable…waiting… “Hire the painter” could be your highest priority but you are waiting for your husband to weigh in on a color, or the painter to send their cost estimate. At work, your ability to “Submit [your] final budget” is dependent on inputs from your colleague, or approval from another department.  In both situations, you’ve appropriately described YOUR task, but are currently unable to personally affect progress. The issue then becomes how to keep these items on your radar because they do represent real responsibilities and impending tasks.

  • If appropriate, rephrase the tasks as actionable, “Discuss colors with Steve” and “Check on status of budget items with Carol” are things that YOU can do.
  • If it truly is just a waiting game, create a section on your list for items, inputs, or responses you are waiting on from others. I include everything from open invoices, to important meeting requests – things that if they linger in this section of my list, I know to follow up.

3) Your critical items might be getting crowded out
Not all “to do” items are created equal. Some are incredibly important AND time sensitive while others are more of a “would be nice” variety – with a lot of types of priorities in between. By listing “Fold laundry”, “Write check for taxes”, “Review of marketing plan”, and “Find yoga studio” next to each other, you risk consistently attending first to the easy or appealing items, leaving little time for the more challenging or scary items that would help you actually make progress toward your larger goals.

Since many of those easy, fun, or relatively mundane items truly do need to get done and will take up your time, instead of taking them off your list, create a system or structure to its presentation that will help focus your attention on the truly critical items.  I use (with customizations) the Covey Time Management Grid to structure my lists. (This system assigns Urgency and Importance separately with items that are both urgent AND important in the top left and items less important and less urgent in the bottom right.) Other people may find it helpful to create their list with another structure such as,

  • Creating multiple columns to distinguish items for different projects
  • Separating work and home tasks
  • Segmenting tasks by how much time you estimate they will take
  • Create mini lists on your calendar to specifically dedicate time to your tasks

While each of these methods do impose a secondary step of organizing (or re-organizing) your tasks which may sound like an additional time sink; but a resulting higher “done rate”, would make it time well-spent. The optimal organization for YOUR lists will be dependent on your specific habits and challenges so don’t be afraid to try out a few different structures to figure out what you need to most easily and consistently find the highest value items on a very full list.

At their best, effective to-do lists can increase your productivity and improve your confidence and ambition to take on more and challenging things that bring value to your life. At their most basic core, they should help you tackle the mountain of responsibilities and daily tasks that fill your days. Either way, if you believe you should be able to accomplish more, rethink how you define your tasks, consider what you really control, and be thoughtful about how you construct, organize, and use your lists.

Amy Kulisheck is an executive coach, business consultant, and owner of Stand Tall Coaching, LLC. She helps clients better understand their unique values and motivators, define personally-meaningful goals, and develop the tools and confidence to be productive, grow, and achieve sustainable change.