How To Fix A To-Do List

To-do lists can be a real pain. They’re an essential pain, but a very real one nonetheless. We rely on to-do lists for ourselves, for errands, chores, family calendar obligations, etc., and we need them professionally, for our work, projects, plans, etc. How can we best balance the terrifying tediousness with the essential effectiveness of the work that has to get done?
Nir Eyal explains in his book, Indistractable, how the best to-do lists don’t start with what we’re going to do, but why we are going to them. The downfall of all to-do lists comes in the act of doing. We make the list… and then fail to execute. The often missing ingredient is the “why we even care to do it” in the first place.
Let’s consider the professional implications of Eyal’s insight. Anyone who has had an outpatient medical procedure will recognize this variation of the to-do list:
  1. Get this prescription filled before the procedure, because you’ll need to take it the next day. 
  2. The night before: no food or water after midnight. 
  3. The morning of: arrive at 8 am to be checked in and prepped. 
  4. Have a person prepared to pick you up and take you home at 10 am. 
  5. Get plenty of rest, start the medicine the next day, and come back in a week for your follow-up. 
The outpatient medical procedure is a gold standard for the professional-client to-do list. The client wants to get better and knows they need to have a procedure to do so. Their reason of feeling better is their why, and it represents the motivation to complete each step on the list. On the professional’s side, their why is to have a simple and successful procedure. By making the steps extremely clear to the client, they increase their odds for a positive outcome by minimizing the odds for unwanted surprises. 
When we look at our own checklists, we want to ask who is impacted by each item, how they’re impacted, and why all involved want to see each step completed. We’re unlikely to do something when the stakes are low. Using Eyal’s simple mental trick, we can raise the stakes and focus not just on what matters, but why it matters. The best to-do lists remind us of the underlying purpose of each item. It may seem like a small detail, but it can make a big difference in our motivation.
We don’t want to just get more done, we want to get more impactful stuff done.