How To Manage A To Do List: 5 Mistakes To Avoid

To-do lists are the most common method for people to get more done. People may know how to manage a to-do list; however, some of them may not realize they’re making some small mistakes following them.


How do you organize your daily tasks?

It’s easy for anybody to write to-do lists, but they may not follow up on some of their tasks. Some people will write several things they need to get done today. Others will list a few things and focus on accomplishing those tasks. 

It may vary, and they’ll get a lot done or very little work completed. In this post, I will discuss five common mistakes people make when writing out to-do lists. 

  1. Write Out 10+ Different Tasks And Expect To Finish Them In One Day
  2. Not Being Specific With Tasks
  3. Listing “Someday” Tasks
  4. Not Using A Calendar With To-Do Lists
  5. Writing Your List Out First Thing In The Morning

Mistake # 1: Write out 10+ different tasks and expect to finish them in one day

Often, people will write out a long list of tasks to complete in a day. They may have ten or more things on their list that they want to accomplish, but don’t accomplish at all.

You won’t cross every item off your to-do list every time. Things will inevitably come up throughout the day, and you may end up falling short. My to-do list is never completed in one day- I have experienced it dozens of times.

Solution: Write out a to-do list and highlight your top three tasks

I see nothing wrong with writing a long to-do list. The problem is that you’re unlikely to accomplish everything as you planned.

Instead of trying to cross off every item on your list, pick out your top three. Ask yourself: What are the three most important tasks you have to complete today? Then, if you have time, you can concentrate on the remaining items.

You will at least accomplish something out of your day if you get your top three tasks done. That’s fine if you have time for all the other tasks. If your goal is to accomplish ten or more tasks in a day, you may not be able to achieve that.

Mistake # 2: Not being specific with tasks

One of the biggest mistakes people make is writing unclear, vague tasks. Writing unclear tasks doesn’t mean much because you likely won’t recall the details later in the day.

You could spend up to 10 minutes or more, working out the details of a particular task. It’s simple to write out tasks that aren’t specific. But if that’s the case, functions that mean little likely won’t lead to taking meaningful action.

Solution: Write tasks that force you to take action

When you write out your to-do lists, take the time to be as specific as possible. If you write out a detailed task, it’ll be easier for you to take action shortly afterward.

Here are some examples of lists I wrote for myself. The first list consists of vague tasks, while the second one outlines more actionable steps.

How to manage a to do list: Being specific with your tasks helps. Turning them into action is what will bring results.
How to manage a to do list: Writing a to-do list that's vague is not good. Being specific is what's needed.

I can give more examples, but it’s a good place to start. It can also be helpful to omit words such as “plan,” “develop,” or “implement” because they refer to more significant tasks. It’s best to separate them into a separate project list if they are projects or challenging tasks.

Mistake # 3: Listing “someday” tasks

Tasks that will take longer to complete on daily to-do lists can keep you from accomplishing smaller ones. It’s essential to list functions that can be performed in a single day, rather than days or weeks to finish.

Paula Rizzo, the author of Listful Thinking, recommends breaking down more significant projects into smaller portions. 

For instance, writing a book will probably take more than a day to finish. For your daily to-do lists, your task can be to draft 2-5 pages daily until you finally finish the book.

Solution: Put “Someday” tasks in a project list

As mentioned earlier, “someday” tasks should be categorized into a project list. This list should comprise tasks you want to fulfill in the long run. Differentiating between short-term and long-term jobs will help you create useful to-do lists.

A good example, Rizzo mentions, is “Climb Mount Everest and pick up milk.” The two tasks are different, whereas climbing Mount Everest will take much more effort to accomplish.

Mistake # 4: Not using a calendar with to-do lists

One of the best approaches to using to-do lists is linking them with a calendar. Some people don’t use a timeline that includes the actions on their list.

Though it’s unnecessary, it can help keep people accountable for follow-up on their activities. It’s also an excellent way to stay on track.

Some people planned to work on a specific task during a certain time frame, but then they don’t follow up on it.

How to manage a to do list: Putting tasks into a separate category can help. An example would be a "someday" list.

Solution: Use time-blocking on your calendar

One of the best methods to get more done is using time blocking. It’s a method of dividing our day into time chunks. So you block out a time frame (i.e., 9 am-1 pm- deep work: writing) to focus on a specific task.

If you include the actions in those time blocks, you’re more likely to follow up on those actions listed earlier. Doing so may allow you to free up more time for leisure and spending time with family.

Read a relevant article from

Read next on “Handling time management during the holidays: Top 9 tips“, to learn how to manage your time during the holiday season.

Mistake # 5: Writing your list out first thing in the morning

Making your to-do lists the first thing after waking up may sound reasonable. But some experts say that it’s too late when you do it first thing in the morning.

Some days, you may feel rushed and need to get somewhere or start on a project. If you have a meeting first thing in the morning, will that be enough time to write out actionable to-do lists? Maybe not, but you don’t want to feel rushed.

How to manage a to do list: Writing out your list at a certain time of the day can help. It all depends on if you want to do it after you wake up, or right before you go to bed.

Solution: Make your to-do list the night before

Instead, it’s best to make your to-do lists at the end of your workday. You may have accomplished your priorities earlier in the day. You can set some time aside to plan for the next day.

Also, it’s an excellent way to wrap up and leave work behind (meaning tasks are put off for another time). Or if you’re like me, set aside sometime right before you go to bed.

This time is right for me to reflect on my day and plan what I want to accomplish the next day ahead. Do yourself a favor by giving your mind a rest and some peaceful time.

Final Words

Making to-do lists has always been a traditional approach to being more productive. The biggest obstacle can be how the tasks are written out, and whether you’re able to take action on them. 

The mistakes I discussed earlier are good reminders to keep ourselves accountable. What we write and intend to accomplish takes time and effort, and it has to be done the right way.

If you’re willing to take action, you’re more likely to see the intended outcomes you expected to achieve.

Your Turn: How are you managing your to-do list?

Are you making one of these mistakes on your to-do lists? Is there something else you know of that makes to-do lists ineffective?

Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. I look forward to reading your responses, and I’ll gladly respond promptly.

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Eric is the owner and chief editor of 

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“Time is your most important asset. It can be your best friend or worst enemy. How you use your time can shape the future you desire to have.” 

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6 thoughts on “How To Manage A To Do List: 5 Mistakes To Avoid”

  1. Wow, I must admit that I have been making a few of these mistakes. Like not being specific with my list, I always write a few short words just like your example and wonder why sometimes I don’t accomplish as much as I really wanted to for the day. Linking them with a calendar is such a smart idea that way it can keep me on track whenever I get side-tracked, which always happens. And I always write my lists out first thing in the morning, I will start doing them at the end of workday because I do sometimes feel rushed when doing my lists in the mornings and lose productivity. Thank you for sharing this, it really is going to help me out going forward when making my daily to-do lists. 

    • Hi,

      It seems to be that way when not being specific with our to-do lists. When lists are left being vague and so forth, there’s no clear direction on what we should do on a given day.

      When we’re specific with what actions we take, we’re more likely to take action than not do it. So that’s why I like to make my to-do lists specific. Linking them to a calendar sure does help, so that way we can stay on track with our goals.

      It’s great that you’ll start doing your list at the end of the day (rather than at the beginning). It can help so you know what you have to do after you wake up at the start of your day.

      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts- they’re much appreciated.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, I love writing out to do lists! and although i have had much success with my lists, sometimes I just don’t complete them.

    I think my main mistake is Number 4: Not using a calander with to do lists. I really should write the time frame of when I expect to complete each task, because if i have not completed my to do list in that day then the list seems to get put aside and forgotten.

    I also find that sticking a list on a board, or writing it in a proper notebook is the best way, as many a times i have written out a list on a scrap piece of paper only for it to be lost in clutter.

    • Hi Jenny,

      For some people, writing to-do lists can be a hit or miss. Either they’ll refer back to them, or they’ll easily put them to the side and totally forget about them the rest of their day. It can happen for sure.

      Yes, using a calendar can help with writing out your to-do list. Figuring out which tasks you need to complete on specific days help out ahead of time. It helps plan out for the short-term and the long-term as well.

      I like how you stick lists to a board for a quick reminder. Of course, my preference is to write them out in a notebook myself. That’s how I do them so I can keep my lists organized and neat. 

      These are certainly great ideas, so you seem to be on the right path. We can agree on some things when it comes to making clear to-do lists.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts. They were very valuable, and I think our readers would greatly appreciate what you have to say about it overall.

      Thanks again- very much appreciated.

  3. Time management is one of the most critical components in regards to success when it comes to school, work, or businesses. I have learned this the hard way sometimes and now I fully understand that time management is a crucial and valuable skill.

    I love the idea of making a vague list and a follow up list of step by step action steps. I see this as a unique and valuable way to tackle tasks throughout the day.

    • Hi Brad,

      In any aspect of life, time management is crucial to doing your best. Whether it’s in business or for personal reasons, it’s a skill to learn and master.  So you’re right on about that point.

      Making a to-do list properly can help you avoid going down a rabbit hole. Even the most vague list can get you off track. That’s why I point out some of the mistakes you want to avoid when making to-do lists.

      Doing it through a step by step guide can be very helpful. If you can stick to a method of making great to-do lists, it’ll be less frustrating and easier down the road.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts- they’re much appreciated.


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