Use Your To-Do List to Spot Opportunity

The value in a task list is as much in what you don't get done as what you do!

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #500

image of a to do list on a desk

We all know your to-do list points the way to great results. And when we talk about to-do lists, we revel in how much they help us do. We love checking off those items one by one:

“Reserve event space” Check! “Insure proper drainage facilities!” Check “Order 2 palettes of jello powder, drop-ship directly to loading dock!” Check “Requisition clown” Check!

The next thing you know, your checklist is complete and your childhood dream is about to come true. Lucky you! Maybe not so lucky for the clown…

Today, however, we’re going to put our attention on the items that didn’t get checked off, because there’s magic there.

To-Do Lists Accumulate

I’m a compulsive to-do list maker. It’s been going on for years. It started with a simple note: “Bring pet goldfish to show and tell.” After a few false starts, it became a small list. “Get jar. This time, fill jar with water. Buy new goldfish. Put goldfish in jar. Bring new goldfish to show and tell.” 

Once in the business world, to-do lists became a way of organizing everything that needs to be done. You might keep your to-do list on paper in a master to-do list system, or you might keep your to-do list online in an app or spreadsheet. Then you use a system for going through your list and deciding what to do next.

Since we generally add items to the list faster than we remove them, there’s a backlog. That backlog contains all the things we haven’t done over the years. If you use an online task list, you might have years’ worth of tasks on the list, if you scroll down far enough. If you use a paper list in a notebook, you might have dozens of old lists in other notebooks or on prior pages. Get them out. We’re going to mine them for gold!

We Behave in Patterns

You see, we are humans, and humans behave in patterns. There are patterns to the tasks you do, and patterns to the tasks you don’t. Scan though your task list backlog and look at all the tasks you didn’t do. Maybe they’re still on the list years later, or maybe you eventually just dropped them. 

Look for patterns in what kind of tasks consistently don’t get done:

  • Marketing tasks
  • Computer tasks
  • Tasks involving accounting
  • Administrative tasks
  • Tasks that require you to work closely with the person from the 3rd floor who smells a bit like a camel
  • Tasks where I’m not accountable to anyone but myself
  • Tasks about things that are long-term important, but not urgent

Diagnose the Patterns

Rather than trying to resurrect any particular abandoned task, survey the categories that you don’t get done. Jot down on a piece of paper Why certain categories don’t get done.

Just as your un-done tasks have patterns, so do problems. There seem to be nine common ones that get in your way. I call these the Nefarious Nine: procrastination, interruptions, distractions, thrashing between multiple projects, fear/emotional attachment, forgetting, action that doesn’t align with your higher goals, not having a plan, and perfectionism.

  • Why don’t I ever get to marketing tasks? Not having a plan: I don’t know which ones will work, so I don’t know what to do next and get paralyzed by indecision.
  • Why don’t I ever send out invoices? Fear: Because I hate dealing with money and decimal points intimidate me.
  • Why don’t I like working with the 3rd floor person? Distraction: Because the smell of camel takes me right back to that unfortunate incident from childhood that my therapist says I’m not ready to deal with.

Solve the Patterns

Find a solution that will help you get unstuck with those tasks: delegation, automation, or collaboration.

What won’t get those tasks done, of course, is willpower. You’ve tried that. You’ve done the “to-do list thing.” So now, do something else. Almost anything. 

Now start brainstorming solutions. Look to the “-ations” for guidance: automation, delegation, and collaboration. 

If you get paralyzed by indecision around marketing, you need to team up with someone who knows what to do. Start asking around to find a marketing person. Then delegate your marketing tasks to them.

If you really don’t like sending out invoices, sign up for an online service like Snapbill, Freshbooks, or Billing Orchard that prepares and sends them for you. Automation will save the day.

And if that 3rd floor camel funk gets you down, call them by phone and suggest that you test out some online collaboration tools together. See if you can complete a joint project without ever having to go face-to-face. It’ll be a test. For science. Collaboration holds the key.

Next time you have items left over on your to-do list, rejoice! Those will tell you what to do next. Look for patterns in what doesn’t get done. The Nefarious Nine obstacles can help you get started in the right direction. Then find a solution that will help you get unstuck with those tasks: delegation, automation, or collaboration. Then even your undone tasks will become a force that helps you work less and do more.

I’m Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re self-employed or run a small business and you find some projects never complete, and some tasks are hard to motivate yourself to do, check out my “Get-it-Done Groups” at https://www.getitdonegroups.com. They provide support, community, and accountability in quarterly programs.

Image of to-do list © Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.