There are thousands of apps, planners and methods for managing to-do lists. I’m sure I’ve tried hundreds of them! But have you noticed that finding new ways to manage to-do lists doesn’t seem to be actually helping? We’re still drowning in things that need our attention, we’re still busier than ever, and often, we’re still not getting the important things done.
It’s incredibly frustrating to work hard all day and end up with a to-do list that’s longer than when you started!
Why to-do lists don’t work
What we’re missing here is that a to-do list is not the best tool for getting things done.
A to-do list is a great place for storing the things we want to do, but really, that’s all. When something new comes up that needs our attention, we put in on our to-do list. This is far better than trying to keep it in our heads, or worse, leave it in our emails. But it’s only one part of the solution.
Trying to work off a to-do list is like a builder trying to figure out what to do next by looking at a pile of all the materials needed for the house they’re building. Does he pick up this beam? Start positioning the oven? It’s not clear.
Everything he needs to do is there, but there’s no order or prioritisation.
Introducing the action list
An action list is what almost all successful people use to get incredible things done. They may not call it this, and their techniques may differ, but invariably, almost all of the top people in their field use something similar to an action list.
Successful people manage their day with a very short list of things they will actually do that day.
It’s not a complete list of all the things they want to do. Instead, it’s a short list of actions they will do that day.
The actions are short and are usually achievable in an hour or less. And there’s not many of them – maybe three to five.
The differences might seem subtle, but they make all the difference to the results.
Three reasons an action list works better than a to-do list
There are lots of reasons an action list works better than a to-do list, but here are the top three…
1. An action list forces you to prioritise
Prioritising tasks is hard to do. We want to do everything and often it’s really difficult to admit that we’re not going to get to some things.
Knowing what you’re not going to work on is as important as knowing what you are going to work on. It’s a similar way of thinking to Warren Buffet’s two-list strategy.
With an action list, you can only include a handful of things and each of those needs to be relatively short. In this way, an action list forces you to decide what is most important for you to get done today.
2. An action list gets you focused on ‘today’
It really doesn’t matter how many great things you have planned for the future. What matters is what you get done today. A life or a career or a business, is just the sum of what you do ‘today’.
An action list requires you to state what you’ll do today. And then, with that short list, you can more easily focus on what you need to do.
3. An action list gives you momentum
Whereas most to-do lists are demoralising, an action list is incredibly motivating.
You learn to include only enough things so that you can actually get them done. (I know, amazing right!) And when you actually do everything you set out to do, you get the feeling that you won the day. It’s addictive.
Although you might fear that you’re only doing a handful of things each day, these are the high-value, important things. When you look back on a week full of these ticked off, it’s easy to see that you’re making big progress towards your goals.
With momentum, you keep going and before long, you’re well on your way to achieving your goals.
How to write an action list
It’s simple to create an action list. Just look over your long to-do list and take a step back to get some perspective. Ask yourself:
What are the most important three things I could do today?
You might find that your to-do list actually doesn’t reflect what your highest priorities should be. Use your common sense here and don’t do things just because they’re on your to-do list! Really think about what is most important for you to achieve today. What actions could you take that will move you closer to your goals?
Make sure that each of your items are phrased as actions with a specific outcome. Also make sure that each of those things will take less than an hour – if not, break them down further.
For example ‘new website’ might be a priority but phrased this way, it’s not an action. If you put that on your list, there’s a very high likelihood that nothing will get done. It doesn’t tell you what you should do next and chances are, it’s a big project that will take a lot longer than one hour.
Instead, your action for today could be; “Contact 3 potential web development firms”, or “Sketch out structure of new website”, or “Create first draft of the ‘services’ page”. Your actions need to be very specific and relatively small.
Then with your short action list in hand, you focus in on those things. Of course, you’ll do other things that come up during the day, but not until you’ve worked through your action list.
Try using an action list
Never used an action list? Give it a go for a week and you’ll see just how powerful this shift is.
If you do use an action list, does it work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.