3 Simple Things You Must Do to Get the Most Out of Your To-Do List

Everything you thought you knew about creating to-do lists is wrong

by Maria Kubitz

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If you’re anything like me, you’ll need to read this.

I used to have so many things on my to-do list I felt like screaming.

I often felt so overwhelmed, I’d give up and escape the stress by procrastinating. I’d check Facebook or find someone to chit-chat with…anything to avoid my to-do list.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, our to-do lists often grow right in front of our eyes.

Why is that? Despite our best efforts, why do we never get through our lists fast enough to complete everything – and find instead that they’ve grown?

Let’s face it. Most of us prioritize our tasks based on deadlines – the sooner the deadline the higher priority the task. When a deadline nears, the task takes on a sense of urgency – kind of like a “fire drill”.

Fire drills are stressful. Sometimes they take up so much of our time and energy to work through, we end up with much less time to get everything else done that we had scheduled for that day. The situation leaves us feeling drained, upset, and on the road to burnout. Nobody wants to feel that way.

I know I don’t.

It comes down to this: prioritizing tasks by deadlines is the wrong approach and actually grows our to-do list instead of shortening it.

So what’s the right approach? What will not only reduce our to-do list, but do it in a way that leaves us feeling deeply fulfilled?

It’s not so much in how, but what we prioritize.

I was introduced to the concept from Dr. Stephen Covey’s book, “First Things First”. He said instead of managing our tasks, we should be managing ourselves. You may be wondering what’s the difference? I did too.

The distinction is meaningful.

Managing tasks focuses on what’s urgent and pressing in our lives. In other words, it focuses on time.

Managing ourselves focuses on our values and personal priorities. It prioritizes our actions based on what helps us achieve our intentions; on what adds the highest value to our life’s goals.

Many times those urgent matters not only don’t support our intentions, they undermine our values and leave us feeling empty and anxious. The move us further away from actually achieving our goals!

So how exactly do we shift our focus?

Follow these 3 simple steps.

1. Write everything down.

Make sure your list includes ALL of your to-do items – even the small tasks that you have swirling around your head taking up important brain space that may only take “a few minutes” to actually complete.

And if you don’t have your personal goals, values and priorities at the forefront of your mind, take a moment to think about them and write those down too. You’ll need them for the next step.

2. Place your to-do items in quadrants.

As described in his book, Dr. Covey lists four quadrants of organization:

Quadrant I
Urgent and High Importance/Value
Theme: Urgency, short-term gain

Quadrant II
Not Urgent and High Importance/Value
Theme: Quality, long-term value

Quadrant III
Urgent and Low Importance/Value
Theme: Deception

Quadrant IV
Not Urgent and Low Importance/Value
Theme: Waste

Before we organize our to-do list, let’s take a closer look at these quadrants to make sure we’re on the same page.

Quadrant I contain our crises, deadline-driven projects, and pressing problems – all of which are critical for success. These tasks often share the following characteristics:

  • Unrealistic deadlines
  • Dealing with late inputs from others
  • Lots of last minute changes due to insufficient planning
  • Leave us feeling drained

Many times, solving these problems (and getting the reward that doing so brings) gives us a temporary adrenalin rush… and that rush can become addictive. Focusing most of our time on Quadrant I results in it getting bigger and bigger until it dominates not just our work, but our life.

Quadrant II activities add the most value to our lives, goals, and projects. They involve developing and nurturing relationships, planning, strategy, and self-care. Characteristics include:

  • Tapping into our authentic selves
  • Thoughtful, creative work
  • Advanced and/or detailed planning
  • Mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships
  • Feeling energetic and fulfilled

Because they’re not urgent, time for activities in this quadrant often gets squeezed out by all of our pressing tasks in Quadrants I and III. But focusing our attention (and intentions) on Quadrant II is the key to checking off items on our to-do list in a meaningful way.

Quadrant III is deceptive. We get sucked into it because the tasks are urgent like Quadrant I, but they lack value – at least value based on our priorities. They often include:

  • Interruptions (including incoming phone calls and email)
  • Unnecessary meetings or events called by others
  • Delegated work from people stuck in crisis mode (or just overwhelmed)
  • Outside “emergencies”

I’m not saying don’t help others, but be aware of how much you’re helping others at the expense of your own values and productivity. Too much time spent in this quadrant can breed resentment.

Quadrant IV activities are time wasters that mainly fall into two categories:

  • Procrastination of difficult tasks
  • Self-indulgent perfectionism on things that are already good enough

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent waaaay too much time in this quadrant…and I think you’re lying if you say you don’t spend any time here.

Now I’m not saying we should abandon Quadrant IV altogether. If you need to take a break to blow off steam or de-stress, then by all means do it…just don’t get stuck there.

So organize your master list into these four quadrants. And remember… “High Importance/Value” relates to your personal values, priorities and goals.


Chances are you put lots of things in Quadrants I and III…and maybe IV.

Here’s a helpful analogy from “First Things First” to think about.

In school we often crammed for tests and didn’t just pass, but got good grades doing it. But in doing so, we usually learned just enough to get by instead of letting the knowledge sink in and stick.

Getting sucked into the fire drill mentality means we miss out on valuable opportunities to expand our minds and experience life in a meaningful way. These deadline-driven tasks are often short-term fixes to long-term issues.

Ready to change that mentality and get the things done that leave you feeling fulfilled?

3. Set a few weekly goals that focus on Quadrant II.

“Oh sure…” I hear you asking, “But what about Quadrants I and III? They’re not going to magically disappear.”

And you’re right, they won’t. But shifting how you approach prioritization will reduce them over time and help you focus more on Quadrant II.

We can’t ignore Quadrant I – these things are important and need to get done. When possible, get them off your to-do list before your other tasks.

But then schedule that regular, dedicated time for planning, strategizing, and collaborating activities to reduce Quadrant I. Remember…time-sucking fire drills often come from a lack of planning.

To reduce Quadrant III, practice flexing your personal boundary muscles and say “no” to unnecessary requests from others. If possible, provide them with what they need to get their tasks done themselves.

As for Quadrant IV, try scheduling downtime into your day so you don’t become overwhelmed and feel the need to check out mentally.

Now that you know what works… go and do it!

Schedule that recurring, uninterrupted time for Quadrant II activities. You’re worth it. Turn off your phone, close your email, and let people know they won’t get a response from you until you’re done.

You’ll reap the rewards sooner (and in more ways) than you think!

Want even more insight and support in eliminating overwhelm and creating realistic, achievable goals? Check out Abundant Yogi’s Overwhelm Eliminator.

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Maria Kubitz
With over twenty years in a successful marketing communications career at companies ranging from huge corporations like Hewlett-Packard to small startup environments with less than ten people, Maria has seen first-hand what works and what doesn't. In 2012, Maria launched a grief support website where her honest, heartfelt writing has helped ...read more

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