How to Actually Finish Your To Do List

Woman writing in a notebook

Do you use a to do list to keep track of your daily tasks and errands?

Does it seem as if the list is constantly spiraling out of control each and every day?

Having a to do list is a great way to capture and store tasks.

This list isn’t of much use, however, if you don’t actually finish tasks you’ve set out for yourself.

This can cause a whole lot of frustration, anxiety, and lots of information clutter.

In this post, you’ll find several ways to help you create and tame that to do list…so that you can actually finish it!

Are you ready? Let’s get started!


Keep a brutally short list.

To do lists are notorious for having dozens and dozens of items on them.

One more task to complete today?

Sure, just add it to the list…right?

Now, while it’s incredibly easy to add items to your list, you do need to exert some restraint.

More items on a to do list means more items to think about, plan, and complete.

The solution? Cut back on the total amount of tasks on your to do lists. Instead of creating a list with thirty-odd items, create one with only three to four items.

While you’re at it, make sure your list only contains to dos. Miscellaneous information, such as your thoughts, observations, comments, ideas and the like should be kept elsewhere, such as in a diary, notebook, journal, or app.


Make sure list items are succinct.

The wording of tasks in a to do list can have a big impact on your ability to get things done. Poorly worded tasks can easily leave you puzzled, confused, and seriously mess up your workflow.

Not convinced? Take this phrase for example: “Clean kitchen.” Now, that is an awfully general to do!

That phrase could mean anything, from decluttering the kitchen cabinets, to sweeping and mopping the floor, to defrosting the freezer and cleaning the interior of the refrigerator. Why make things more difficult for yourself?

When creating your to do lists, be as specific as possible by writing clear and concise tasks. Use action verbs and break large tasks into smaller doable tasks. So, in our kitchen example, you might rewrite “Clean kitchen” as any one of the following tasks:

  • Clean oven
  • Scrub kitchen sink
  • Defrost freezer
  • Carry paper recycling outside
  • Declutter kitchen cabinets


Make sure items are timely.

There’s nothing stopping you from unpacking your holiday decorations in the middle of July. Unfortunately, that may not be the most efficient use of your time.

When adding items to your to do list, make sure that they are true priorities and that they reflect your current work and personal needs and goals.

Think about this for a moment: of the items on your to do list, which items absolutely must be completed today? What items can be pushed back to tomorrow, later in the week, or perhaps even the following week or beyond?

In our example above, more appropriate or timely tasks for the summer months would be cleaning the pool, waterproofing your outdoor furniture, or weeding your garden.


Tackle list items first thing in the morning.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re ready to complete the items on your to do list, but you realize it’s 6 P.M. in the afternoon and you have no energy or desire to do your work. Your to do list items remain unfinished.   

If your energy and motivation levels take a turn for the worse in the late afternoon or evening, try switching things around. Aim to tackle your to do list items earlier in the day. You might work on items first thing in the morning or perhaps right after lunch.

Even if you can only complete two out of four tasks in the morning, you’ll still be halfway to your goal.


Schedule tasks into your calendar.

Having trouble finding the time to complete your daily to dos? Why not make time for them? Try scheduling your to dos directly into your calendar. This ensures you’ll actually have the time you need during the day to complete each task.

You can do this by either blocking out a chunk of time in your calendar to complete all of your to dos, such as a three-hour block in the morning, or by scheduling individual tasks into your calendar in different time increments.


Learn from your mistakes.

One of the great things about to do lists is that they are snapshots in time. They can tell you exactly what happened last Thursday or last month. Fortunately, you can use this existing information to your advantage.

Instead of simply dismissing yesterday’s to do list, take a moment to give the list a careful review. Which of your tasks were successfully completed? Which tasks weren’t?

Now, it’s time to take things a step further. What helped or allowed you to complete tasks? What prevented you from completing tasks?

After reviewing several of your to do lists, you should be able to see some obvious patterns. Maybe you scheduled way too many to dos on Monday, or waited until 8 P.M. on Thursday night to complete your list.

You can use this knowledge to create future lists that will work for, and not against you.

How about you? What steps do you take to ensure you’ll finish the items on your to do list? Which of the above tips do you think you’ll try out in future? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

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About the Author


Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based productivity consultant who helps entrepreneurs manage their time and energy so they can reduce stress, work less, and make more money in their businesses. She has been featured in Fast Company, NBC News, The Washington Post, Business Insider, NPR, Huff Post, Fox Business, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.


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