Common sense tells us that creating a to-do list is the first step in being productive. You diligently write everything down, get it out of your head so you won’t forget and put it all in one place. But the truth is, this is where the problem starts. A to-do list is just that… a list of well, stuff. Random stuff. And it doesn’t work.

5 Reasons Why Your To-Do List Doesn’t Work

Reason #1: It’s a long wish list

To-do lists with the best intentions include things you will get done today and tomorrow along side things that may not happen for another six months. This kind of to-do list may also include things that you ‘should’ do but if you really think about it, you’re not even sure why. It includes stuff to do for work, home, the kids, your health, the pets, your parents, your book club and anyone else you can think of. In fact, it may not even include one thing for you or your wellbeing.

Action Item: Organize your list into categories that are consistent with what you want to have as a priority in your life. Categories may include Work, Health, Family, Fun Stuff, etc.

Why: You can see what you’ve got going on in which areas of your life and where you may not be in alignment with what’s actually important to you.

Reason #2: It’s not prioritized

You feel confident that you’ve gotten all those to-dos out of your head and onto your list, creating more mental space. You’re ready to start ticking items off, starting with the first thing on your list. The problem is that’s not the most important task — the most important task happens to be on the bottom of the list — so you never get to it.

Action Item: Go through your list and consider the priority. Put the more critical or time-sensitive tasks first.

Why: It’s easy to feel productive when you are checking things off the list. However, if the most important task is not getting done, you’re not really being productive.

Reason #3: You’ve written down a project list not a task list.

You’ve jotted down things like “Plan trip to Italy” and “Organize closet” but these are really projects and not tasks that can be easily or quickly checked off.

Action Item: Make sure your tasks are really tasks and not projects. If something on your list will take several steps to complete it’s a project. Projects belong on their own list.

Why: Projects can include many tasks, which can take much longer than you anticipated.

Reason #4: It’s not scheduled.

It’s terrific that it’s on the list — the intention is there — but it rarely happens unless it is scheduled on your calendar.

Action Item: Pick your high priority tasks and schedule them in your calendar.

Why: Unless we protect our time, things just creep in and more times than not it’s something that’s important to someone else and not you.

Reason #5: All things aren’t equal

Some tasks will take five minutes, others will take a few hours. Some tasks are critical to achieving a goal, while others are just simple one-off to dos. Your list doesn’t necessarily consider what’s important and why.

Action Item: Go through your list and consider the importance of the task.

Why: If you are looking for a new job does updating your resume have the same weight as buying a new interview outfit? They may both be tasks in your overall project (aka goal) of getting a new job, but to which task should you give more consideration and brain power?

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of the to-do list — I can’t live without mine (WHAT?!) but after years or trial and error I use my to-do list much more strategically. But before we get into that I want to tell you why you really do need a to-do list. So stay tuned for more next week!