Why You Should Always "To Do" Before You Actually Do

It's important to write tasks down before you work on them, even if you're about to start on one right away

Do you find yourself scratching your head at the end of the day, thinking to yourself “hmm…what on earth was I actually doing today? Did I accomplish anything? Anything at all?”

I’ve certainly had that feeling from time to time. It’s that nagging sense that you were just pushing papers or putting out fires all day and didn’t really get any closer to achieving genuine goals you’ve set. Let me tell you – feeling like that after a chaotic work day just plain sucks. But there’s a trick you can play on yourself that will make your day go way, way smoother.

Write down a To Do before you do anything.

Now I realize that this may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious. “Of course you should write tasks down before you work on them…. (stupid blogger man!)” But I’m not talking about the big stuff, like “take year-end tax receipts to accountant” or “plan summer vacation at Disneyland”. I’m talking about every little, teeny, tiny thing. Here’s how it works:

  • Create a running “Work Day” To Do list. I recommend using something very simple, like the Reminders app on your iPhone or an equivalent on your Android phone. Whatever app you use, just make sure it saves completed tasks somewhere and doesn’t simply delete them.
  • In the beginning of each workday, review what’s on your To Do list. Write down anything new you can think of you want to tackle that day. That’s the key – it can’t be stuff you have no intention of doing soon. That’s for another list.
  • As your work day progresses, keeping adding stuff to the list every time a new task looms. Before you pick up that phone to call back somebody who left you voicemail earlier, write that down as a To Do – even if you write it immediately prior to performing the task. This is very important. Same goes for replying to emails, signing documents, looking up the answer to somebody’s question…always make sure you’ve written down the To Do before you work on it.
  • Sometimes you’ll want to write down the To Do and weigh it against other tasks in your list. Yes, it’s OK to prioritize and triage. Assume somebody’s incoming request is of lesser priority than what you already have in your list, and then find out if you really need to change that assumption.
  • After you’ve completed a task on your To Do list, check it off. Or if you decide not to complete it right away – perhaps wait until tomorrow – move it down to the bottom of the list.

This may feel like a lot of overhead, but here’s what’s so wonderful about this process: at the end of the day, you will have a list of completed tasks you can look at and remember what you’ve accomplished. It’s like journaling what it is you do, in real-time. You can go back and review your progress, and you can even analyze your work patterns from day to day to determine if you need to change how you prioritize incoming requests.

I must admit that, while I’ve used this system from time to time, I have only recently started getting truly disciplined about it. Now I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t start doing this ages ago! If, like me, you run your own business (or several!) and feel like you’re constantly having to juggle multiple balls in the air, this system will take some of the stress out of your day and make you feel powerful.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments area! I’d love to hear any other suggestions you have for improving your day.



Jared White