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7 Sneaky Reasons You Never Finish Your To-Do List

These to-do list-making mistakes can hinder you from reaching your goals. Here's how to write a more effective to-do list.

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You make your to-do list in the morning

Write your to-do list the night before. This way, you don’t waste energized morning mojo organizing tasks for the day. Writing a to-do list before bed can also calm your mind before you sleep (psychologists and psychiatrists often recommend this to prevent anxiety). Establishing a plan for the next 24 hours keeps unwanted thoughts—“Don’t forget to finish that report tomorrow!” “You have a parent meeting at 3 p.m.!”—from disturbing your sleep.

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iStock/Rich Legg

You write down too much

According to a LinkedIn survey of 6,500 professionals, only 11 percent say they accomplish all of the tasks on their to-do list by the end of an average workday. That’s likely because they’re dumping everything they can think of onto it. Instead, only write down the three most important tasks. These are the things that must be completed on any given day (finish work presentation, call your aunt for her birthday). When you see too many options at once, you may become overwhelmed and want to give up before you even start.

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You don’t categorize

Once you’ve identified your top three tasks for the day, sort all other goals in two lists: a long-term list and a weekly list. In your long-term list, write what you want to accomplish within three to six months—whether it’s “buy a new television” or “paint kitchen cabinets.” In your weekly list, break down long-term goals into actionable tasks, such as “research flat screen rates” or “pick up paint swatches.”

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You’re not specific enough

If your goals are ambiguous, your outcomes will be too. “Ninety-nine percent of every to-do list I’ve seen are nothing but incomplete lists of unclear stuff,” David Allen, a productivity consultant and author of Getting Things Done, told Bloomberg Business. “You’ll see things like ‘Mom’ or ‘Bank’ or ‘Doctor.’ Well, good; but what’s the next action?” When you see an ambiguous item on a to-do list, it’s easy to file it away into a mental “I’ll-do-it-later” file. Write down specific tasks, such as “Set up new savings account at bank” instead of “Bank.”

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You don’t prioritize

Some items on your to-do list may take longer than expected. If you begin with a low-priority item, it may prevent you from completing more important tasks. Number your three “must-do” objectives in order of priority, and aim to complete the first one before you before you check emails in the morning. A short glance at your inbox may seem harmless, but it can quickly turn into a time suck. One survey found that office workers spend 2.6 hours per day reading and answering emails.

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You don’t expect the unexpected

According to the LinkedIn survey, 89 percent of people fail to accomplish the tasks on their daily to-do lists because of distractions. Though some distractions can be avoided (say, by shutting of email notifications when you’re working on an important projects), other times unexpected tasks fall into your lap. Every day, account for at least one hour of “free time” for unplanned items that might come up. The time cushion keeps your stress levels in check when the unexpected arises, and even on a quiet day, you’ll have more time to finish other tasks.

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You forget the big picture

If you have trouble prioritizing your to-do list, think about what your bigger goal is. Want to work toward a promotion? Save up for a big vacation? If an item on your to-do list isn’t getting you there (say, taking an hour to get a pedicure you don’t need) reevaluate why it’s on the list. Keep a your larger, long-term goals visible so you can frequently compare them to your daily and weekly goals.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest