How to go from lazy procrastinator to to-do list wizard — in 3 easy steps


Even for masters of productivity, to-do lists can be drudgery. Sure, knocking out your list with the swagger of a Type-A rock star feels great — but for a lot of us (especially Type Bs) crossing stuff off is not much motivation.

What about making more money? 

Indeed, being efficient and on-time with tasks is one of the surest paths to a raise. A tidy to-do list might even make you more attractive to a potential mate if it helps you seem less stressed — and more focused and interested in solving problems.

So why fight the call of the to-do list?

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em: Tune up your list today. These 3 steps can help you more reliably and productively push through your to-dos — and supercharge your life in the process.

1. Know the best time to jot down to-dos

Sure there are owls and larks, but no matter your circadian rhythms, you'll be best off starting each day with a sense of direction — which is why at least one productivity expert says you should always write your to-do lists the evening before.

Robert C. Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, told Fast Company in 2014 that the best way to start your day is by getting your list in order the night before. 

Not only will you be clear on your goals for the day — from the moment you open your eyes (avoiding wasted roll-over-in-bed time as you mull how to organize your day) — but you'll also capitalize on the high energy of morning.

2. Track growth and proficiency

There's been a big educational policy debate over measuring students' growth vs. their proficiency, partly thanks to the confirmation hearings of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (and Saturday Night Live). 

But the two concepts can also hold sway with your productivity.

When it comes to your daily to-dos, the "proficiency" measure is: Are you accomplishing your desired goals and completing your intended tasks?

One tip: Try the Ivy Lee Method advocated by productivity experts, even though it is nearly 100 years old.

Author James Clear wrote that Ivy Lee, an early innovator in public relations, advised Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, in 1918 to improve his employees' productivity by asking them to write down only six tasks for the next day at the end of their work day.

He said to then prioritize them in importance, according to Clear. The next morning, he advised, begin with No. 1 and do not go on to the next one until the first is completed. At the end of the day, he told them, move the tasks not completed to the list for the next day. Then repeat.

As the story goes, their productivity went up with this plan.


First, Clear wrote, it sets you up to get rolling first thing in the morning without any dithering about a plan — you wrote your plan last night. Second, it calls on you to prioritize and make decisions about what is the most important thing, so by completing that task, you get hit with an outsized blast of accomplishment. 

Third, it requires singularity of focus. For all the emphasis in our modern lives on multitasking, studies suggest that most people cannot really pull it off.

Now, of course, some tasks take longer — or are more complicated, and can't be done in a day. A task like "write report" or "prepare proposal" can take weeks or more.

That's where "growth" comes in.

You can first break those larger tasks down into distinct items ("write the introduction of the report" or "research competitors for proposal").

Then: Use a time-tracking app, like Toggl, to track how much time you have put into working on the overall task. This can insulate you against the despair of not striking through the big task until, at last, you do.

3. Turbocharge your to-do list

Some tasks on your to-do list come with their own deadlines: "pay bills" or "return library books." But others — "donate old clothes" or "organize junk drawer" — are time-suckingly open-ended.

Prevent an item on your list from getting rolled over onto the next day's list again and again by putting a deadline on it: Note on your to-do list when a task must be done by a reasonable date.

If you keep putting something off — for example, if "pay medical bill" keeps getting rolled over — ask yourself if it actually is a task you can accomplish.

Remember that the best to-do list is full of simple, actionable and achievable tasks. Maybe you need to change to: "negotiate with insurance company about bill, and work out a payment plan — by Friday."

That's clearer, and less intimidating (if you don't have the cash). You might even not have to pay in the end, if you negotiate the bill properly.

By the same token, you might want to rework the way you're are writing (and accomplishing) tasks to be more fun, engaging and specific.

Instead of "send birthday greeting" try "make a birthday video for childhood friend." Rather than "read a book for work" try "use book to get background information to nail next week's meeting."

This can help you overcome standard weekly drudgery, like "clean out the refrigerator" or "do laundry," too. They may become "find the greenest mold in the fridge" or "read Book You Love for 30 minutes while laundry is in washer."

Additionally, you can use this strategy to create a braver self. 

Think about your to-do list as a glimpse at your future self: By turning tasks that leave you uninspired into dares — that challenge you to be ambitious — you won't just get your list done, you'll supercharge your productivity in general.

Sometimes the stakes just need to be a little higher: If "call an old friend" is a task that keeps getting moved to the next day, challenge yourself with "invite old friend to a favorite old hangout."

"Call with client" could become "coffee with client and boss."

"Prep for presentation" could become "prepare presentation as an online workshop."

"Go for a run" could become "log X number of miles because you're signed up for a 10K race in a month."

You're smarter than your to-do list — and more ambitious than you know.

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic’s creditsavingscareerinvesting and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.