To-Do Lists – How to manage them without overwhelm

Time Management

There are a lot of ways that people organize themselves. Time management and productivity are interesting to me, and I have thought a lot about them over the years. I am going to elaborate on three things that have made a difference in how I handle my lists, learned from various sources over the years (from Franklin-Covey to what they taught residents in medical school to articles and webinars I have attended over the years). 


Values are so so so important! It helps here because it helps in decision making and prioritizing. If something does not add to your life, you may not want to be spending your time on it. Most of the time, in my personal experience, the things on my to-do list (especially the recurring, adulting things like chores and errands) don’t relate to all that many of my values. 

However, sometimes those same things prevent me from living in my values – like when my workspace is a huge mess, I cannot be creative (creativity is one of my top three values) as easily if my space is taking my attention, even if it is low-grade annoyance. Sometimes I have to clean that up, file papers, dust, or organize to get to the activity I really want to do.

It helps to relate the things to particular areas (my Clever Fox Planner lists them as career, finances, health, personal development, relationships, family & friends, fun, and spiritual), and to use long and short term goals related to these areas and my values to clarify priorities. I try to do this regularly (at least a couple times a year, usually in August and January) to make sure I am really spending my time on things that are important to me. 

Most planners have some version of this, and I have looked at them all! I have actually used Franklin-Covey and now Clever Fox planners since I was in college, though, and they seem to work the best with my brain. There are a ton of others out there, though, so finding the one that works best for you is key.

That said, there are also people who hate planners. And sometimes, all you need is a to-do list. When I worked in a hospital, they taught the residents to make a weekly list of the things they needed to do, and to draw a box next to the ones that had to be completed on any given day. I used this method, and also added Franklin Covey’s dots, arrows, initials, and check mark system to keep on top of those daily tasks. They have a whole system, but the part that I am talking about is “Phase 3.” (pictured)

80/20 Rule

I recently was in a webinar and the person was talking about the 80/20 rule – that 20% of our effort accounts for 80% of our reward. This applies in various ways – 

  • 80% of conflict in a relationship is caused by 20% of the issues
  • 80% of the happiness derived on Christmas morning (this one is not just for kids, I think it applies in general) is gained by only 20% of the presents
  • 80% of the cleanliness of our kitchens is related to 20% of the cleaning we do (countertops!)
  • 80% of the time, what we wear is only about 20% of our closet

Apparently, this is also called the Pareto Principle, and comes from a business and investing arena. If you apply it to your to-do list – it might be a page or a post-it – about 20% of it is really going to make a difference to you in your life and functioning. 

I think this is most helpful in filtering out the ‘shoulds’ from the things that will actually make a difference in your life.  


There are many schools of thought when it comes to productivity. This is the set that works the best for me, though.  

SHLE (I say it like “shale”) stands for:

Shortest – do the shortest task first to gain momentum

Hardest – while your brain is fresh and you have energy 

Longest – you still need some of that energy, but these generally take a little less brain power 

Easiest – wrap up with a sense of accomplishment

What this means in terms of your to-do list is that it is pretty unlikely that you are going to get everything done in a day that you think you should be doing. If you whittle the list down to 4 things, this is the order I tackle them in to maximize efficiency.

My To-Do List System

When all is said and done, here is what it boils down to:

  1. Evaluate and prioritize tasks by values list
  2. Make weekly to do list to use progressively
  3. Use ‘resident’ system to designate the things I need to do that day
  4. Use SHLE to figure out the order of the most valued tasks I will tackle that day
  5. Use Phase 3 to indicate where I am in the tasks
  6. Remember 80/20 when things get in the way and I have to be flexible
  7. Celebrate when I am able to check everything off!

There are plenty of schools of thought when it comes to productivity, This is the set that works the best for me, though! 

I hope that was interesting or helpful. I’ll have a new blog for you next week!

Feel free to get in touch!