The dilemma: I have a successful client who had the longest to-do list I’d ever seen: seven single-spaced pages. He couldn’t put a dent in that list and typically found that many of his items got pushed to the bottom of the list and were ultimately abandoned.

My client felt this situation was unacceptable and hoped I could help him uncover the root cause of his too-long list. After my client and I had some intense discussions, we discovered five rules to turn his to-do list into a help rather than a hindrance.

1. It must be possible to accomplish each item on the to-do in a single day. Complex multi-step projects should not be listed on your daily to-do list. The underlying reality is that big tasks or projects are essentially a collection of many smaller steps. Only these smaller steps should be on your list. Big tasks or projects need their own checklist; it is from this checklist that smaller items can be moved to your daily to-do list.
2. Have an initial entry date for each item listed. This is a simple but important requirement. Without an entry date, you will not be able to assess whether you are getting things done in a timely fashion.
3. For each task, have a spot on your list for both a projected and an actual date of completion. While most items should be completed in one day, you may need to adjust completion dates as circumstances dictate.
4. Have no more than six to 10 items on your daily to-do list. Consider the purpose of a to-do list: to help you complete your daily tasks in a timely fashion. As mentioned above, one of the pleasures of a to-do list is being able to check off task as you complete them. A too-long list defeats that purpose. (See #5 for modifications to this rule.)
5. Assess the number of tasks you can accomplish in a typical day. One of the benefits of closely monitoring your to-do list is that you’ll learn how much you can accomplish in a typical day. This, in turn, will allow you to plan your days and weeks more efficiently.

By making these few adjustments to your to-do list, you can check off all your items at the end of the day and go home happy.

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Nick Ray is a business coach who specializes in working with financial services professionals. He is the author of There’s More to Selling than Making the Sale as well as a workbook on target marketing. He can be reached at nick@coachnickray.com.