Putting First Things First: 8 Tips for Handling Your To-Do List

When I whittle down my To-Do list, it feels terrific. However, the joy disguises the unpleasant fact that those finished items may not have been the ones most important to complete. On a list, everything appears equally important and it is easier to tackle a simple or non-essential task. In my pressing desire to get something done, I frequently overlook what is critical, what is outdated, or what has lost its importance. I justify diversions as motivational momentum to keep going, but that’s not what should dictate task selection.

Too often the time I spend on minor tasks sidetracks me from doing what is most important. I accept admonitions of “keeping your eye on the prize” or Stephen R. Covey’s (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) to do “first things first.” Yet, I can procrastinate. While Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind can decide to think about things tomorrow, I should not. The pace of change in the 1860s was leisurely.   Certainly, this is not the case today. Now, time matters since windows of opportunity close rapidly and risks mount. Quick response to critical issues is a necessity. Would you want a doctor to address a patient’s broken finger before attending to a blocked windpipe? Priorities and sequencing action are critical. Triaging a situation is not only good medical practice, the discipline works for all of us.

We all need to reassess what must be done first to ensure delivery of the desired result. This means resisting the temptation to quickly dash off a response without a full analysis. United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz’s, first reaction to a passenger being dragged off a plane on April 9, 2017, was incomplete, insensitive, disrespectful and later regretted. He damaged the brand and spurred Congressional hearings.

Consider the following triage concepts for your To-Do list:

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  1. Confirm information and assumptions to prioritize what must be done first. Not everything is a number one priority.
  2. Take a proactive role to prevent significant issues from escalating into a crisis. Early intervention pays dividends.
  3. Recognize recurrent firefights and search for a cause, rather than repeatedly addressing symptoms. While it feels good to put out fires, preventing them is much wiser.
  4. Accept that you cannot successfully multi-task challenging issues. Critical issues deserve your full attention and creative thinking.
  5. Know what to cut from your To-Do list and challenge the necessity of new tasks. Many issues are mundane and should be delegated or canceled.
  6. Concentrate on adding value for the long-term. Attention to customers must come before busy work or administrative trivia.
  7. Employ out-of-the-box thinking and mental agility. Today’s problems cannot be solved by yesterday’s solutions.
  8. What would you add, that has worked well for you? [/message] [su_spacer]

There are only 24 hours in a day, so use them wisely. Concentrate on achieving your goals and the actions that move you toward them. Learn to say no to wasteful pursuits and distractions so that your time is optimized. You will reduce stress and achieve better outcomes.

For more articles by Dr. Mary Lippitt visit Enterprise Management


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. Great information Dr Lippitt! In further support of the importance of each of these bullet points, every time we are interrupted, it takes our mind approximately 20 minutes or so to refocus.

    Considering how many times in any given day we are met with interruptions (that could/should be handled by tending to our ‘to do list’) and the additional time it takes to refocus – cornerstone to your overarching message is the importance of figuring out how to be execute what works for us …and then sticking to it 🙂

    • Jennifer, Thank you for the quantification of what we know intuitively. Interruptions take away much more than most people realize. I recall a statement that the hardest thing in writing a symphony was sitting down to the piano. An interruption takes us away and it is hard to sit back down.
      Appreciate your insights.

  2. Mary, super advice – thank you! As someone who doesn’t have the luxury of delegating administrative tasks right now, I’ve started combining my todo list with my calendar and blocking out the times of the day when I’m most productive and focused for the hard tasks. Then leaving the busy work for times when it’s harder to focus.

    • Carol,
      Blocking out time is a great idea. It stops me from spinning my wheels which does happen. I think the other realization is that I can find digital assistance for some of my routine tasks. And I have been lucky to find some fantastic and affordable assistance.

  3. Mary, love your list. I too like #8 as in doing the most dreaded task first. Making a to do list allows us all to focus on a call to action. Without action chances are we can’t make the most of our waking hours.

    • Arlene,
      I think many of us benefit from doing the painful first. My other strategy is to do part of what I dislike early in the day and realize I do not have to do everything. Taking it in small portions helps me when it is a large issue.

  4. Mary: Excellent list and all very important. If I had to pick one that I have found to be most common it would be #3. Far too often we fix symptoms vs. core problems and the end result is recurring issues. That is closely followed by #4.

    I would add a #8 to the list. Do the one thing that you most dread or hate to do first thing in the day. Getting that out of the way makes being productive for the rest of the day far easier, as that dreaded chore doesn’t keep popping into your consciousness and causing distractions.

    • Ken, I agree with your suggestion about doing the “painful” things first. When I can cross one of those off my list, I feel great. Thanks for the addition.