How to Stick to a To-Do List and Unlock Your Productivity

Colorful sticky notes

If your goal is to stick to your to-do list (of course it is), you might have noticed that writing it down doesn’t translate directly into being able to execute it.

Don’t worry, that’s completely normal.

I have previously published a guide: “The Essential Guide to Writing a To-Do List That ACTUALLY Works” in which I showed the must-use strategies in order to write a truly effective to-do list. 

However, even though by following those tips you would already be halfway through executing your list, they are mainly related to the act of writing, and might not be enough.

That’s why today I’m going to show you some more strategies that will help you stick to your to-do list.

In fact, they have helped me finally become productive back when I still used to be a “super procrastinator” (that wanted to stop procrastinating, though).

Let’s get started.

Just Start

Woman ready to start running

The Number 1 Rule of personal productivity: start.

By following this rule, you can beat laziness, stop procrastination, overcome lack of motivation, and, of course, stick to your to-do list.

Sometimes, we struggle with executing our tasks because we think too much about how difficult they are.

Ok, that’s a lie.

Not sometimes, but MOST of the times, the reason we don’t stick to our to-do list can be found in our tendency to focus on the negative aspects of a task. 

Stop that. Don’t even think about it. It doesn’t matter if it’s easy or difficult, if it takes 5 minutes or 50 minutes. If it has to be done, it should be done.

Just start, and it will be easier to keep going. Guaranteed. 

“Appetite comes with eating.”

Multiply and Categorize

Three sticky to-do list notes on a string

If you only write one list, that should be a daily to-do list. 

But why limit yourself? 

There is a way to get the most out of your daily lists, and it would be a pity not to benefit from it.

Remember how one of the must-do’s of “todolisting” was to sort activities by priority? Good.

Sometimes, knowing exactly which task is more important than others is not immediate. 

Of course, the Time Management Matrix is the perfect tool for this, but it requires you to use it every time you are in doubt about a task’s real importance.

This is why you should “multiply” your to-do list and create two lists: a daily one and a long-term one. If you want, you can make a weekly or monthly list, too.

The reason for making this “multiplication” is simple: on your long-term list (also called master list), you write down your biggest projects, goals, and ambitions. These will serve as a north star for your monthly/weekly plan and especially for your daily to-do list. 

When you have a master list, you won’t have any doubt whether a task is important or not, since you’ll only have to check if the latter is (or isn’t) relevant to your goals. 

Finally, it’s important that you categorize between work activities and personal activities

You can either do this by using different to-do lists or, if you prefer to use one single list, you can use symbols or colors to differentiate work from personal.

Since you would ideally dedicate a specific amount and a specific slot of time to every task, I would suggest you use only one list on which to write activities of both categories. This way, you can easily see everything in one place and know exactly what comes first and what comes after, without the risk of forgetting tasks that are written on another list.

Throw Your Phone Away

Person throwing his phone in a trash can

Look, I know you love your smartphone, but you should really get rid of it; at least when you have work to do.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to focus effectively.

Apparently, most people check their phones 58 times a day, and most of the time they do so, they spend more or less only 1 minute.

This already means losing 58 minutes a day. If only it were such a little amount of time!

Our brain usually takes up to 20 minutes to regain its focus whenever it gets distracted, even if it’s just for one minute; so, if we consider all this together, you can realize one thing: if you want to focus and be productive, keep your phone the hell away from you.

If you want to focus and be productive, keep your phone the hell away from you.

“But I need my phone for work, you know? It’s not like I play games with it.”

Sigh… The data refers to how much time you waste on your phone.  

If you need your smartphone for professional purposes, of course you should use it.

Just try not to check your phone when you’re not supposed to.

Silence it, turn it off, keep it in another room, throw it away, sell it. Whatever solution you prefer.

(For more strategies to start using your smartphone less, you might want to read this: Stop Using Your Smartphone So Much: 10 Tips That Really Work.)

Actually Stick to Your To-Do List

Short to-do list written on a sticky note

In order to stick to your to-do list, you need to… stick to your to-do list.

It sounds obvious, but truth is that most people only want to stick to their lists, but really don’t.

You should only work on what you have written on your list. Everything else must be avoided, unless it’s something really urgent and actually important. 

It’s essential that you learn to be ruthless at saying NO to things that seem important, but really are not. 

If you get off track, you will easily end up doing everything except the very activities you should have been working on.

This takes us to our next point…

Don’t Let the Unexpected Ruin The Day 

If something unexpected actually happens and makes you lose many hours, don’t throw the rest of the day away.

I know how easy it is to think “well, today is gone. Let’s see if tomorrow goes better.”

You don’t want to do that.

Instead, keep following your to-do list. Look at the important tasks that still need to be done, and resume working on them. 

You won’t be able to check all the other items off your list, but it’s ok — unexpected things are called unexpected for a reason. They just happen.

The road to success is never a straight line. You just have to deal with it the best you can. 

Use the Pomodoro Technique

Three big red tomatoes in a basket

“No… Not the Pomodoro Technique again!”

Yeah I know, I talk about it quite a lot here on Efficientively, but that’s because it’s a seriously useful tool.

(If you want, you can check this in-depth guide on how to use the Pomodoro Technique.)

Anyway, the mechanism is simple: 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5-minute break, and a longer break of 15-30 mins every four sessions.

The Pomodoro Technique has some great benefits, but what we want here is: focus

By taking frequent breaks, you allow your brain to relax and get back to work feeling refreshed and able to concentrate effectively again. 

Don’t use your phone during the quick 5-minute breaks, though. Instead, take a short walk.

“Outsource” Accountability

Sometimes, it’s really helpful to have a friend or family member that holds us accountable.

It’s like exercising with or without a personal trainer; if left on our own, we are (much) more likely to skip workout sessions and eat unhealthy food.

If you don’t mind letting someone else know about your goals, it might be a good idea to find yourself a trusted buddy that will not only keep you accountable, but will also motivate you when you need it.

Be OK With Not Doing 100% OK

Not completing everything on your to-do list is totally fine. 

One of the most common mistakes I see around is that people forget the main purpose of making a to-do list: to help you plan your day better and have a more organized and less chaotic life.

That’s the real reason why you want to make and stick to a to-do list. It is not completing everything you write in it.

Of course, we should always try our best to accomplish 100% of our tasks, but that’s easier said than done.

Don’t be harsh on yourself for not being productive like you had planned to. It won’t help you improve. Besides, it’s not always your fault.

Just accept it, and commit to doing better tomorrow. 

One more thing: like we said previously, if something unexpected happens, do not waste the rest of the day. No matter what makes you waste time and no matter when it happens, you should at least try to complete the 2 or 3 most important tasks of the day.

“What if this unexpected something happens late in the day?”

In that case, it’s less of a problem, since you would have already completed your most important tasks. Right?

Never Forget The Daily Review

Person holding pencil writing on a notebook a review of the day

At night, before going to sleep, and before writing your to-do list for tomorrow, remember to review the day.

Take a few minutes to see what you’ve been able to complete today, what you haven’t done (or haven’t done well), and how you can do better tomorrow.

It’s important that you don’t neglect this simple routine.

Feedback is essential. If you don’t track your progress, you don’t make progress.

One hour or 30 minutes before going to bed, review your day and then write your to-do list for tomorrow.

BONUS TIP: Reward Yourself!

It’s universal knowledge that we humans are generally reward-driven.

If we know that we’ll get a reward (that we like) for what we do, we are more motivated to work hard. Otherwise, we’d rather spend all our day watching the clouds; at least it’s kind of interesting.

Give yourself a prize for your hard work. It can be anything that works for you.

But only do it after completing either one important task or all important tasks.

My recommendation is to reward yourself only at the end of the work day and only if you have completed your most important activities.

There are mainly 2 reasons for this:

Reason No. 1. If the work day is not yet finished, you will still have other stuff you need to do. If at this moment you start an activity you really enjoy doing, it will make it harder to get back to work.

Not just that, you might even end up not resuming work at all. Especially if you work from home and your work hours are a little more flexible. This is true if you are a student, as well. Go study first, then you can have fun.

Reason No. 2. At the end of your workday, you will have effectively completed your most important tasks (right?), so you can relax and give yourself a bigger reward.

You can watch a movie or your favourite TV show, prepare delicious food for dinner, play some video games, read an interesting book, etc.

All these activities are really fun and enjoyable, and it’s exactly because of that that you shouldn’t start them when you still have work to do. Having to go back to work after doing fun stuff is NOT fun at all, I think we all agree with that.

Ready to Unlock Your Productivity?

Now you know how to stick to your to-do list!

If you take both what you learned about writing a to-do list and the advice here on how to execute it, you will have no problem being always productive. 

Ok, almost always. Of course there will be days when you won’t be able to be as effective as you’d like! 

But if you put everything into practice, you will see a big difference. At the very least, you will stop wasting hours and hours every day without even making 0.00001% progress towards your goals.

So, will you keep procrastinating and throwing time away?

Or will you stick to your to-do list and become a more organized, productive, and happy person?

Your choice.

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