How To Build A Better To-Do List

Originally published Tuesday, 13 November 2012.


If you’re like me, you probably have a fairly long to-do list.  Yet do you ever find yourself starting again with another list the next day…and the next…and the next? Perhaps you find yourself getting through stacks of busy work, but not feeling a deep sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.


You may be experiencing fall-out from the Pareto Principle.  It’s also called the 80/20 Rule, or, my favorite, “The Vital Few And Trivial Many” rule. This rule states that a minority percentage of input leads to a majority of output.

For example:

  • 20% of the book accounts for 80% of the information
  • 20% of our clothes make up 80% of our outfits
  • 20% of the meeting time leads to 80% of the decisions made
  • 20% of our efforts leads to 80% of our success
  • 20% of the people at a picnic will eat 80% of the food

Here’s how it works in terms of building a better to-do list.Pareto’s Principle encourages us to identify which of all our activities are most important, and then focus our energies on that important 20%.  If we allow ourself to be pulled away by the other 80% of activities, we will get a much lower return on our efforts.  In other words, we need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff on our to-do lists.

What are some ways you can identify your top twenty percent?

  1. Create a list of your major life categories, for example: relationships, career, finances, and health.
  2. For each category, ask yourself: what are the top non-negotiables in this area of my life?  What are the things that I would be unable or truly unwilling to compromise on in these areas?
  3. For each category, define what you consider to be a fruitful outcome.  Then think of the most effective ways you know to get there.
  4. To look at it from another perspective, consider which 20% of all your actions in a particular category will yield the greatest impact.

This exercise will help you get more familiar with and focused on your most productive priorities.  By Pareto’s Principle, investing your time and energy into these priorities will yield the majority of results you are hoping for.

This week’s self-reflection:  How intentional is my to-do list?  Does it have many of my top twenty percent priorities on it?  Or it is getting swamped by the remaining 80%?

This week’s call to action:  Cull through the next to-do list you create. Go ahead and be ruthless! Separate it into a top 20% and then a remaining 80%.  Commit yourself to the top 20% first, and then consider delegating, delaying, or discarding the remainder.  You will find yourself tapping into a deeper sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.


(photo credit: Ivan Walsh)