How Realistic Expectations Help Me Plan My To-Do List With Confidence

Preview: These three simple steps will help you have realistic expectations and create a to-do list that doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted.

How can you make a plan for your day with confidence? Writing a to-do list is easy, but it’s much harder to be and feel successful in crossing off items on your list. You can make a plan for your day that doesn’t leave you exhausted just by looking at it. Let’s explore three steps you can take to have realistic expectations and create a to-do list that feels attainable.

These three simple steps will help you have realistic expectations and create a to-do list that doesn't leave you feeling exhausted.

The Daily ATM

As I plan my day, I think about three things: agenda, tasks, and meals. This makes up my Daily ATM.

I have several Daily ATM layout options, and I usually use one with space for six tasks. I’ve learned after many failed attempts that I can only accomplish six daily tasks. When I try to use the Daily ATM version that has space for 10, I rarely accomplish all of the items on the list. I still cross off six. I choose in the moment what to do instead of pre-deciding what I will get done.

I have to remind myself frequently that I cannot do it all and that if I don’t decide where I want to focus my efforts at the beginning of the day, my day will dictate what I accomplish and where I will focus my energies. How can you decide what to put on your to-do list for the day and live intentionally instead of allowing your day to dictate what you do? I follow three steps that help me have realistic expectations and plan my day to succeed.

Step 1: How many tasks can you accomplish?

The first step is to choose how many tasks you can realistically accomplish. Start with just three. In addition to the random list of things you need to do, also include items such as

  • Activities that are not a routine or habit yet.
  • Specific work blocks such as work or teacher planning blocks.
  • Phone calls you need to make.
  • Weekly chores.

It doesn’t seem like much to only accomplish three tasks, but as you get a handle on your days, you may be able to increase the number without feeling overwhelmed during the day.

It is also important to consider how busy your day will be and how much time the tasks on your list will require. If you will be out of the house all day, you will be able to accomplish less. If you have three tasks that each only requires five minutes to complete, you can accomplish more than if you have three tasks that each requires an hour to complete.

Step 2: What is the most important thing to do today?

Step two is to decide the most important thing to do that day. What are the top three things that you want to get done? Depending on how much is going on, you may complete these three and be able to tackle a few more from your master list but choose the three that you want to finish.

Use the work you did from the previous two episodes when you looked at your values and identified your big rocks or juggling balls. Consider if your tasks for the day support your priorities, or are the tasks getting in the way of accomplishing what is important to you? You will have tasks on your Daily ATM that are not directly related to your priorities, and that’s normal. What we don’t want to happen is continually have a to-do list that does not support our goals and priorities.

Step 3: Ruthlessly eliminate tasks

The third step is to ruthlessly eliminate tasks. This is so hard. You must let go of the fear, guilt, and shame that you won’t get everything done. You cannot and will not accomplish everything you want to do; you have to make choices. It’s better to choose in advance what you will do and ensure that your choices support your values and goals. To do that, you have to ruthlessly eliminate tasks from your to-do list. I love the Eliminate, Automate, Delegate funnel I learned from Rory Vaden in his TED Talk. In a nutshell, he suggests sending all of your tasks through this funnel.

  1. Can you eliminate the task?
  2. If you cannot eliminate it, can you automate it so that you don’t have to do it again next month?
  3. If you can’t automate it, can you delegate it? (You can learn more about delegating tasks to your children with the Responsibilities and Privileges List.)

If the task falls out of the funnel because you cannot eliminate, automate, or delegate it, then you need to do it. Schedule a time and get it done. If you keep pushing a task off to the next day, and it moves through the funnel multiple times, consider if you need to do it. If it keeps going through the funnel, you might need to be more ruthless about evaluating whether the task needs to be done by you.

It gets easier with practice.

Instead of thinking about what you’re not getting done, imagine the sense of accomplishment you will feel when you cross the last item off your list for the day. As I continue practicing these three steps, I improve each day. Some days I fail miserably. I plan too much. I fail to recognize how much of the day I will be away from home or in meetings. I fail to recognize that one of the tasks will take a lot longer than I thought it would. It’s a learning process.

When that happens, I just roll with the punches and know that tomorrow is a new day. It’s not about getting it all right. By being intentional and putting in the effort to create a realistic to-do list, I accomplish more of what is important to me. In the attempt, I already eliminated tasks I otherwise would have just added without thinking and made a long list of things for me to do for the day.

Your Challenge

Your challenge is to think about what you can realistically accomplish in a day. Write down your top three tasks or priorities and see how much more in control of your day you feel.

This is the third post in a Take Back Your Days Challenge Week. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.

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