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How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials

Do your days seem to be crazy busy and your to-do list filled up with an endless supply of tasks? Is your calendar full and your work day a non-stop rush from one thing to another?

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    If so, you may have too much on your plate. It’s time to step back, take a few minutes, and pare down that to-do list to just the bare essentials.

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    Imagine, for a moment, that you have only a few things on your list for today. Imagine the peace that comes from that simple little fact. Now imagine your workday, a day of simplicity, of focus, of powerful accomplishments. Imagine that instead of doing 10 little things that don’t matter much, you do one thing that will really have an impact on your business, on who you are, on your future.

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    Now make it happen. It’s possible, this workday of peace, this Zen-like productivity. But it will take focus and energy, and a little bit of hard-headedness. Here’s a guide for doing that.

    • Focus on your goals. To know what is essential, you must first know what you are trying to achieve. If you have no goals, you have no way of knowing if a task is essential for accomplishing those goals. Take a few minutes to review your goals (or write them for the first time). Where do you want to be in 10 years? What one big thing can you do to get there this year? What can you do in the next few months? And what can you do this week? By having these goals, you are providing yourself with a roadmap. Focus on just one goal at a time for now, until that is achieved, and then focus on the next.
    • Know your value. If you do not value yourself, you will not value your time. And then you will say yes to every request, and your to-do list will always be overflowing. Take a few minutes to think about your skills, and what you are worth. Think about how much you want your time to be worth. And now, don’t accept any work that is not worth your time and value.
    • Most bang for your buck. Look at your to-do list: which tasks on there really, really matter? Which ones will make you the most money, get you the most recognition, and pay off for you the most in the long run? Put a star next to those tasks. If you don’t have any of those tasks on your list, consider coming up with a few. These are what you should focus on.
    • Eliminate the rest. Now that you know which tasks really, really matter … see what you can eliminate of the rest. Some of them can actually be crossed off immediately. A few other strategies for eliminating tasks from your list are below.
    • Clear your mornings. Set aside a big block of time every morning (the whole morning if possible) to work on your starred tasks — the ones that really matter. This is the quiet time when you can be really productive. Once afternoon hits, things are likely to pick up, and your important tasks can be pushed back. Clear you calendar in the mornings, don’t schedule anything then, turn off your phone and email, clear off your desk, and see how much you can get done.
    • Choose three things. If your list has 20 things on it, just choose three for today. But you want to do five or seven? Be ruthless. Prioritize, and only choose three. Write those three on a separate piece of paper, and that’s your to-do list for today. Be sure that at least one of them leads to your short-term goal for this week. The other two should definitely be starred tasks — those really, really important ones.
    • Stop meetings. Meetings are almost always a waste of your time. If you control them, eliminate them. Have people report stuff through email. Collaborate using online tools. Or have one-on-one meetings, for 5-10 minutes each, if necessary, and batch them together in a one-hour chunk in the afternoon. If you don’t control them, show your boss why you shouldn’t be in a meeting, and how much you can accomplish if you didn’t have to go — make a pitch your boss can’t refuse.
    • Delegate. Take another look at your to-do list … is there stuff on there that you don’t need to be doing? Forward them on to someone else, either higher up on the food chain than you or lower, or at the same level. It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s not you. Know what needs to be done by you, and what doesn’t.
    • Default to no. Instead of taking on every request that comes your way, learn to say no. Only accept those tasks that really must be done by you, that are worth your time, and that will give you the most benefit in the long run. Say no to all the rest, as hard as that may be. Or delay — tell them to ask you again next week. Often the request will go away.
    • Shunt tasks to a folder. Have other small tasks that you need to do today that aren’t on your three-task to-do list for today? Put those tasks in a separate folder, or on another list, and put it away in a drawer. Set aside an hour or so later in the day, and batch process those small tasks. Phone calls, quick memos, paperwork, whatever — you can do these all real fast, all at once. It’s better than scattering them throughout the day.
    • Single-task. When you’re going to focus on one of your three important tasks for today, really focus. Eliminate all distractions, including the Internet and email and phones and clutter on your desk. Don’t allow anything to interrupt. Same thing if you’re going to have a one-on-one meeting with someone (as mentioned above) or batch process your smaller tasks — do one at a time. Multi-tasking will just stress you out and make you less productive. Multi-tasking is really only effective on a larger scale — doing multiple projects over the course of a month, say, instead of multiple tasks at once.
    • Set one time for email. This is probably the hardest task for most of us. Email is something we’re used to doing throughout the day. But really, for most people, email doesn’t need to be answered right away. Manage the expectations of those you communicate with — let them know that you only do email once a day, and they won’t expect an immediate answer. If this is impossible for you, at the very least, limit your email to chunks, instead of doing it throughout the day. Do it 2 or 3 times a day, or once an hour for 5 minutes, but not throughout the hour. And do not do it during your quiet time in the morning — that’s for starred tasks only.
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    More by this author

    Leo Babauta

    Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

    The Gentle Art of Saying No How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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    Last Updated on June 20, 2019

    50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Most people want a few more dollars in their wallets. But between an employer and family, the time most of us can devote to a second job is severely limited. Running a small side business can provide a few more options: you don’t have to show up at a set time and you can use skills you already have. Not all will be perfect for everyone, of course, and I’m sure that you’ll have a few ideas of your own after reading this list. If you’d like to share any other business ideas, please add them in the comments.

    1. Selling collectibles — From antique books to teddy bears, there are plenty of opportunities to buy and sell collectibles. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the collectible of your choice but if you choose something that you’ve been collecting for a while, you’ve got a head start.
    2. Locating apartments — It can take time to sort through apartment listings, but you can make some money by finding the perfect apartment for a renter.
    3. Baby proofing — New parents often prefer to bring in an expert to make sure their home is safe for a new baby.
    4. Calligraphic writing — If you’ve got elegant handwriting, you can pick up gigs writing or addressing wedding invitations, holiday cards and more.
    5. Selling coupons — Search on eBay for coupons right now and you’ll see thousands of listings for coupons. It’s just a matter of clipping and listing what you find in your Sunday newspaper.
    6. Pet training — A surprising number of people don’t know where to start in training a pet. Even teaching Rover simple commands like ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ can bring in a few dollars.
    7. Running errands — A wide variety of people want to outsource their errands, from those folks who aren’t able to leave their homes easily to those who have a busy schedule.
    8. Researching family trees — Amateur genealogists often call in experts, especially to handle research that has to be done in person in a far off place. If you’re willing to go to a local church and copy a few records, you can handle many family tree research requests.
    9. Supplying firewood — The prerequisite for selling firewood is having a source of wood; if you’ve got some land where you can cut down a few trees, you’ve got a head start.
    10. Hauling — As more people trade in their SUVs for compact cars, hauling is becoming more important: people have to rent a truck or hire a hauler for even small loads.
    11. Image consulting — Image consultants provide a wide variety of services, ranging from offering advice on appearance to teaching etiquette.
    12. Menu planning — For many people, the trip up in eating home-cooked or healthy meals is knowing what to prepare. Meal planners set a schedule to solve certain dietary problems.
    13. Microfarming — Cultivating food and flowers on small plots of land allows you to sell produce easily.
    14. Offering notary public services — Notary publics can witness and authenticate documents: a service needed for all sorts of official documents.
    15. Teaching music — If you’re skilled with a musical instrument, you can earn money by offering lessons.
    16. Mystery shopping — Mystery shoppers check the conditions and service at a store and report back to the store’s higher-ups.
    17. Offering research services — Just by reading up on a topic and compiling a report on it can earn you money.
    18. Personal shopping — Personal shoppers typically select gifts, apparel and other products for clients, helping them save time.
    19. Pet breeding — Purebred pets can be quite value, especially if you can verify their pedigree.
    20. Removing snow — During the winter months, shoveling walks can still be a reliable way to earn money. You might be asked to take care of the driveway too.
    21. Utility auditing — As people become environmentally-concious, they want to know just how efficient their homes are. With some simple testing, you can tell them.
    22. Offering web hosting services — Providing server space can be lucrative, particularly if you can provide tech support to your clients.
    23. Cutting lawns — An old standby, cutting lawns and other landscaping services can provide a second income in the summer.
    24. Auctioning items on eBay — Want to get rid of all your old stuff? Stick it up on eBay and auction it off.
    25. Babysitting — Child care of all kinds, from babysitting to nannying, can offer constant opportunities.
    26. Freelance writing — If you’ve got the skills to write clearly, you can sell your pen for everything from blogs to advertising copy.
    27. Selling blog and website themes — Do a little designing on the side? Customers that don’t want to pay full price for a website will often pay for a template or theme.
    28. Offering computer help — Particularly with people new to computers, you can earn money by providing in-home computer help.
    29. Designing websites — It may require a little skilled effort, but designing websites remains a reliable source of income.
    30. Selling stock photography — For shutterbugs, an easy way to put a photography collection to work is to post it to a stock photography site.
    31. Freelance designing — Check with local businesses: you can provide brochures, business cards and other design work and get paid a good fee.
    32. Tutoring — Math and languages reamin the easiest subjects to find tutoring gigs for, but there is demand for other fields as well.
    33. Housesitting / petsitting — Stopping in to check on a house or pet can earn you some money, and maybe even a place to stay.
    34. Building niche websites — If you can put together a site on a very specific topic, you can put targeted ads on it and make money quickly.
    35. Translating — The variety of translating work available is huge: written word, on the spot and more is easy to find even on a part-time basis.
    36. Creating custom crafts — No matter what kind of crafts you make, there’s likely a market for it. Etsy remains one of the easiest places to sell crafts.
    37. Setting up a wi-fi hotspot — With a little bit of equipment, you can set up a wi-fi hotspot and charge your neighbors for the access they’ve been ‘borrowing.’
    38. Selling an e-book — You can write an e-book about almost anything and put it up for sale online.
    39. Affiliate marketing — If you’re willing to market other companies’ products, you can earn a cut of the sales.
    40. Renting out your spare room — From looking for a long-term roommate to listing your guest room on couch surfing sites, that spare room can make you money.
    41. Offering handy man services — Handling small household tasks can provide you with plenty of work, although you’ll probably be expected to have your own tools.
    42. Teaching an online class — Share your expertise through a website, an online seminar or variety of other methods.
    43. Building furniture — For those with the skill to create handmade furniture, selling their creations is often just a matter of advertising.
    44. Providing personal chef services — Personal chefs prepare meals ahead of time for customers, leaving their customers with a full freezer and no mess.
    45. Event planning — From planning corporate events to bar mitzvahs, an event planning business can require plenty of work and offer plenty of pay.
    46. Installing home safety products — Particularly as Baby Boomers age, people able to install handrails and other home safety products are in demand.
    47. Altering / tailoring — If your sewing skills are up to par, altering garments is coming back as people try to stretch more wear out of their clothing.
    48. Offering in-home beauty services — Hair cuts, makeup and other beauty services that can be performed at home have a growing demand.
    49. Business coaching — Helping others to establish and develop their businesses can provide many opportunities to earn money.
    50. Writing resumes — Writing resumes can provide a reliable income, especially if you can put a polish on a client’s credentials.

    There are plenty of offers that claim to provide you with the opportunity to make thousands of dollars a week. Unfortunately, none of these businesses will provide that sort of income, but they aren’t scams either. They were chosen because they all require a minimum investment to get started — some require nothing more than a flyer advertising your business. Even better, if you do enjoy any of these businesses, there is a potential with most of them to continue to expand — perhaps even to the point of going full time.

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    Featured photo credit: Omar Prestwich via unsplash.com

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