Get Your Freelance To-Do Lists Under Control With A Doable Strategy

Effectively manage tasks with two to-do lists so you can boost productivity and ensure important tasks get done without undue pressure and stress.

woman writing to-do list

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (available here on Amazon), state that one person typically has at minimum, 150 different tasks to get done at any given time, and that an executive’s average to-do list for a single Monday is so big that it can take more than a week to finish.

It’s no wonder that 41% of to-do tasks are never completed.

To-do lists fail when they are created aspirationally.

Aspirational to-do lists reflect what you hope to get done or what you wish you could get done in a single day if everything goes according to plan and the workday is perfect. Unfortunately, perfect workdays rarely happen and most of us overestimate how much we can get done and underestimate how long tasks take to complete.

Now, not only are people not very good at completing their to-do list tasks, only 15% of completed items actually start as to-do list items — which means unexpected tasks are getting in the way of both important work and big picture goals.

It’s imperative that you master your to-do lists once and for all. And to do that, you have to accept one truth…

You May Never Have Nothing To Do

To-do lists are neverending.

You won’t one day magically finish everything on your to-do list and have nothing else to do. It’s simply not reality, especially for freelancers, solopreneurs, working professionals, entrepreneurs, parents, and business owners.

Each day your to-do list grows, and as tasks are completed and checked off, more tasks get added. Often, new tasks get added to your to-do list faster than existing tasks get completed and the list of things to do just keeps getting longer and more unrealistic. The burden of an unmanageable to-do list can feel like the weight of the world is sitting on your shoulders.

Too many to-dos without a clear plan of action produces anxiety and multitasking to get more done causes productivity and mental health to suffer, which leads to overwhelm, frustration, worry, stress, exhaustion, sleepless nights, and burnout. I know these feelings intimately because I’ve been there, done that, suffered through it, and changed my habits for the better.

I’ve mastered my to-do lists and as a result, have increased productivity and saved my sanity.

A New To-Do List Strategy

For years, I was the person with the sticky notes and scraps of paper all over my desk. Eventually, I switched to a single journal to keep track of my to-dos, and after that, I moved on to a task management book. Each time, the tool was different but the approach was the same — one big, giant, daunting list of obligations.

Because my to-do list grew faster than tasks were completed, it seemed impossible to get ahead. I felt as if I was treading water and slowly drowning.

Maybe you can relate?

Eventually, for my own mental health and sanity, I had to stop multitasking and change the way I managed my time and my tasks.

To become a productivity powerhouse, I had to add limits, prioritization, and organization to my task management strategy. I realized that to create a successful, sustainable, profitable business, you need a dependable system to manage tasks and time.

The goal is to be as productive and efficient as possible during your workday, so you don’t have to work long hours, nights, and weekends.

To get more done in less time without creating undue pressure and running yourself ragged, you need two different types of to-do lists:

A Master To-Do List

The master to-do list is a running list of every single thing, no matter the size or deadline, that you know you have to get done. This is one big, giant, long, unorganized, continuously growing list that has one goal: get everything out of your head and into a visual format you can review and evaluate.

The human mind can organize what you need to accomplish more effectively when it can “see” everything you need to complete. So keeping a master to-do list creates a visual foundation that the daily to-do lists are created from.

Daily To-Do Lists

The daily to-do list is a realistic, achievable, focused to-do list that includes only what is relevant for that single day of work. It gets created, completed, and destroyed on a daily basis, pulling in specific tasks from the master to-do list so only the most critical to-dos are top of mind.

I keep my master to-do list tucked in a drawer during the day and only focus on what is listed on my daily to-do list. This prevents me from avoiding tasks I don’t want to do and justifying my actions by completing other less critical to-do items.

Many to-do lists contain big, medium, and small tasks. That isn’t a novel concept.

The problem is in the order the tasks are completed in. Most people knock out all the little and medium tasks first to clear the way for the biggest task of the day. Except that as the day progresses, unexpected things show up, there is no longer time to tackle that big task, and it gets pushed out to the next day.

To ensure your daily to-do lists are realistic and achievable, follow the 1, 3, 5 Rule:

  • 1 big item: A major, time-consuming project that requires intense focus or a large block of uninterrupted time — usually the most important thing to get done that day.
  • Up to 3 medium items: Smaller items that require less time and/or focus but are also very important to get done that day.
  • Up to 5 small items: Little administrative tasks or quick and simple tasks that don’t require heavy focus — typically things you can get done quickly and easily without much effort.

Then work your to-do list in that order.

Complete the one big item first, then the three medium items, and finally, when you’re a bit tired, take care of the small tasks that don’t require as much focus and strategic thought. If you’re a morning person like I am, this approach means you’ll be using your most productive and creative time of day for the biggest task that requires the greatest amount of focus.

My daily 1/3/5 to-do list accounts for about five hours of my day, leaving time for healthy breaks and the unplanned, unexpected items that never fail to show up, like unscheduled calls, concerning emails, client fires, neighborhood construction, losing internet, ad-hoc meetings, sickness, or even childcare issues.

The Right To-Do List Tool

Finding the right approach to task management and my to-do list was gamechanging.

There are a lot of to-do list apps and task management tools to choose from. I wish I could give you a definitive answer on which one is best for your work style. But I can’t. There isn’t one solution that’s best for everyone. You need to experiment and try different tools to find the right one that fits the way you like to work — one you’ll actually use and stick with.

Don’t limit yourself to digital tools.

I know that the latest apps and SaaS products are sexy but the task management tool that works best for you just may be old-fashioned analog tools like a pen and paper. After trying various day planners, journals, and notebooks, I designed my own task management notebook to house my master to-do list. For my daily to-do list, I created my own week-at-a-glance, 17×11″ notepad that organizes my daily 1/3/5 tasks.