Time Management: Ten Reasons Tasks Never Move off Your To-Do List (and how to fix it)

By Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro®

I recently surveyed my readers on the eternal question of productivity: Why is it that some things on your to-do list never get done?  Some great responses rolled in, ranging from the classic (too many interruptions) to the matter-of-fact (I don’t feel like doing it).

But as diverse as the responses were, it didn’t take long to see certain themes emerge.  Below are the top ten issues at the heart of the problem and some guidance on how to deal with them.

1. You haven’t made the necessary decisions.  Your to-do list should be full of clear, actionable ideas—in other words, things you can actually do.  If you have a vague goal, like “Have a sale,” you’ve still got a lot of thinking to do before you can hit the ground running and make real progress.  Take a minute to figure out exactly what you need to accomplish: What kind of sale?  When will it take place?  What will it promote?  Once the task is more fleshed out, you’ll be more likely to make progress on it.

2. You haven’t talked to the people involved.  Are you worried that you don’t have the necessary support to make your idea happen?  If you need buy-in, go get buy-in.  Chances are that your first step should be to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting.  Even if you don’t get the answers you want, at least you’ll know where you stand.  From there, you can move forward, adjust your strategy, or simply move on.  Wherever the idea ends up, at least it isn’t festering on your list.

3. You haven’t done your homework.  Perhaps you know you need to schedule a teleseminar series, but haven’t gotten around to researching which platforms are available.  Figuring out the mundane logistics is now keeping you from making an important decision.  Carve out some time to do the legwork, or better yet, delegate that part of the task to someone else.  Once you have a better idea of your options, you can focus on the real issue at hand.

4. You’re ignoring your internal clock.  We spend so much time focused on schedules and deadlines that we often forget to pay attention to our body’s natural rhythms.  Yes, your Outlook calendar might say that a block of work will fit perfectly on Wednesday afternoon, but if that places your big task in the middle of a low-energy period of your day, you don’t stand a chance.  Keep your daily energy levels in mind as you plan your day.  Start high-energy projects early if that’s when your concentration is at its best.

5. The task is unpleasant.  The first step is admitting it!  If you’re being honest with yourself, you probably have an item on your list that hasn’t been done simply because the task is unpleasant and you’d rather not do it.  If that’s the case, it’s time to get tough.  Make a decision right now to either do the task, delegate the task, or forget about it altogether.  If you need to do it, stop thinking about it and just get it done.  If it can be delegated effectively, go ahead and make arrangements with someone else.  And if you’re going to eliminate it completely, cross it off your list and for goodness’ sakes move on already!

6. The task is overwhelming.  You don’t know where to start.  Is there an item on your to-do list along the lines of Complete Huge Multifaceted Project XYZ?  No wonder you aren’t making progress!  The task it too big.  Large or complicated projects need to be broken down into manageable chunks or else they’ll always take a back seat to the smaller, more manageable things on your list.  After all, would you rather spend the afternoon completing five smaller items on your list or barely making a dent in one?  By identifying a few key steps, such as “Gather Project documents” and “Outline project scope,” you’ll know exactly what needs to be done next and be less likely to hesitate as you take action.

7. You are plagued with distractions and interruptions.  Seemingly innocent interruptions like checking e-mail, answering the phone, or chatting with coworkers will eat your productivity alive.  And although many of these interruptions aren’t necessarily your fault, managing them is your responsibility.  Identify your time wasters and take immediate steps to correct the problem.  You might need to set regular times each day to check e-mail or close your door to let coworkers know you’re temporarily unavailable.  Not sure where your time is going?  Keep a detailed log for a few days and find out once and for all.

8. You are constantly putting out fires.  Does it seem impossible to achieve any real long-term focus as you jump from one urgent, immediate priority to the next?  Good leaders understand how important it is to make time for true high-value activities, even if they don’t present themselves as urgent, deadline-driven issues.  If you spend every day jumping from one issue to the next, you might help avert disasters, but you won’t ever accomplish anything substantive.  Instead, focus on the cause of all those urgent interruptions.  Do they come from lack of planning, procrastination, or a team that isn’t empowered to handle simple issues on their own?  Once you address the underlying problems, you’ll be able to focus your time and energy where it belongs.

9. The task requires a lot of work for little reward or recognition.  Recognition is nice, but don’t live and die by it.  If the task is worth doing, it is worth doing regardless of whether you will be recognized for the contribution.  If it’s not worth doing (but you have to do it anyway), just get the darn thing done and move on to something more fulfilling.  In the meantime, your paycheck is your reward.

10. You day is overscheduled before you even sit down in the morning.  You schedule time and bend over backwards for everyone else…why don’t you do the same for yourself?  Make appointments with yourself and treat them with the same level of importance as you would a meeting with a client or coworker.  If you know you need three hours to get something done, schedule three hours to get it done.  And I mean really schedule it.  Put it on your calendar, eliminate distractions, and treat the task with the same respect you would a one-on-one meeting with a live person.

So there you have it: ten huge productivity bandits—decide which ones best apply to you.  Be relentless as you kick them to the curb and get those tasks checked off your list!

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2010 Laura Stack.  All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Time Management: Ten Reasons Tasks Never Move off Your To-Do List (and how to fix it)

  1. I only write down the things that I know I will do, If i’m not going to do them, then I don’t write them down.

    There is no point in reminding myself of something I won’t do.

  2. I’m also one that does both paper and computer so that is not the best solution either, but I will try harder! Thanks again!

  3. I make several to do lists and they never get done because I forget where I put them. Myabe this will help me get everything organized so I can get these “to do” things done!!

  4. I’d go so far as to say that a to-do list is, in itself, a major cause of ‘never-get-done’ syndrome.

    When tasks come in I allocate them a specific day and do everything in my power to make sure I do them then.

    My default setting is to tackle tasks the day after I get them, unless they need to be done on a specific day.

    Whilst this system isn’t perfect, it does eliminate a long list of things that might get done, and replaces it with a short list of things that probably will.

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