April 22, 2013
Successful People Have Short To-Do Lists

Busyness is a status symbol in modern life. We like to talk about having a million things to do, as if having every minute filled is a sign of importance.

But many successful people don’t have this same mindset. Chalene Johnson — the fitness personality known for creating the TurboJam videos, and author of the bestselling book PUSH — puts just six things on her to-do list per day. As she told me when I interviewed her for my ebook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work, her list consists of three things that must get done that day, and three small steps toward what she calls her “push” goal for the year. This is a measurable goal that’s achievement would make other goals possible.

So, for instance, the year that she wanted her book to hit the bestseller list, she knew she needed to create a database of at least 100,000 fan email addresses so she could reach and market to these people. The activities necessary to create that database became her push goal.

These three steps can be quite simple. The day I interviewed her, one of her three steps (toward another push goal) was setting up an appointment. Another was revising an outline. Getting through the list is “pretty easy when you only have six things,” she told me. “I breeze through them and feel very accomplished. It creates an adrenaline rush, a snowball effect for me to want to stay on a roll.”

The reason to create a short to-do list is that “you never feel defeated. You got everything done that had to get done. Most people think they have to sprint and that’s why they never hit their big push goals — because they run out of steam.”

Sure, doing six things per day may not seem like much. But successful people know that small things done repeatedly have great power. If you do six things that matter, daily, without fail, that’s 1500 high-impact actions in a typical work year. That’s a lot. Think of all the new clients that could mean reaching out to. Think of all the new projects you could pursue, the articles you could write to promote your organization or personal brand, and all the employees you could mentor (or hire).

The problem with having a million things to do is that it’s impossible to do a million things. So we do some, but perhaps not the right ones. We face failure every day when we leave many things undone. With items left on the to-do list, we think we should be working, rather than relaxing or enjoying our families, in the hours we’re at home.

Really effective people don’t fall into this trap. They view a to-do list as a contract with themselves. Once they’ve chosen to do something, they do it by the end of the day. That’s why it’s smart to make success possible by putting fewer things, rather than more, on the list. Life is a marathon, not a sprint — and it’s better to finish than sputter out.

How many things do you put on your to-do list?

Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2012) and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She writes the 168 Hours blog for CBS MoneyWatch, is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and speaks frequently about time management and leadership topics. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Other Articles by Laura Vanderkam:

How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done

Why And How Managers Should Help Workers Set Boundaries

Work-Life Balance Is Dead—Why That Might Be A Good Thing

It’s Time To Stop Asking CEOs How They 'Balance'

How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload

7 Common Mistakes New Managers Make

The Right Way To Use Company Perks

How To Figure Out Your Most Productive Time Of Day

Why You Should Rethink That Morning Meeting

5 Ways To Keep Your Best Employees From Quitting