The to-do list loophole that lets you feel great about not finishing every single thing


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Photo: Getty Images/Emilija Manevska

I’m a big believer in the power of crossing things out, and many of the items do make the journey from “to-do” to “to-done.” But nearly never do all my daily tasks get completed by the end of the day, no matter how late I allow my end-of-day marker to stretch until. Though I’ve grown used to living with the omnipresence of tasks to be completed getting carried over to the next day (and next day, and next day), I do harbor some shame about what feels like follow-through failure. But, according to Arianna Huffington, I should cut myself a break.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Huffington shared her favorite micro-steps that can lead to big change and increased productivity. My favorite of the bunch? Allowing yourself to declare an end to the day, even if you don’t cross out each to-do list item. “Effectively prioritizing means being comfortable with incompletions,” she writes. “Once you’ve handled the day’s essential priorities, recognize that in any interesting job it’s almost impossible to do all you could have done in any one day.”

“As humans, we hit a plateau after a certain amount of time working, when returns for the time and effort we’re putting in starts dwindling.” —business coach Kimberly Lucht

Furthermore, implementing time limit for completing that to-do list provides us the opportunity to finish tasks more artfully. After all, your brain can only handle so much at a given time or during a given timeframe. “As humans, we hit a plateau after a certain amount of time working, when returns for the time and effort we’re putting in starts dwindling,” says life and business coach Kimberly Lucht. “Ever read the same word on repeat for five minutes? That means it’s time to give your brain space to reboot and rest up.”

Not allowing that time for resting and rebooting can lead to—wait for it—total burnout and a lack of work-life balance, especially if your tasks to be completed are numerous (and important) by what’s supposed to be the end of the day. And if you find yourself knocking off the tiny to-dos, like “empty dishwasher” or “make doctor’s appointment,” instead of fulfilling the more important heavy-hitters? Lucht says restructuring your list, and even your whole list-taking method, could help.

“When I cut the list down to three main tasks or priorities per day, I noticed that not only did my productivity soar, but I got more done in less time since I was way more focused on these three things than I would have been on ten,” she says.

If you simply can’t strip down your to-do list to that extent, I get it. What you can definitely do, though, is prioritize tackling your most important tasks at the front-end of the day. Why? Because life happens and unforeseen situations pop up as the day goes on, so if you can knock out super-vital goings-on from the start, you’re less likely to feel stuck working way past your self-imposed end time, Lucht says.

Think about it this way: To-do lists can be great productivity and organizational tools, or they can guilt you into thinking you’ve accomplished nothing. Setting realistic limits and guardrails for yourself will help you finish what you actually need to finish. For all the other tasks to be completed? You’ll be perfectly refreshed to have at it tomorrow.

Grab some headphones, because listening to music may actually be good for your daily workflow. Or, on the flip side, learn about how a “won’t-do” list might help productivity.

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