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who is your to do list actually for?

September 7, 2015

I am guessing that you have one. A personal “to do” list of things that you want to get done. If you are like me it can get pretty long and some items have a tendency to drop towards, or even off, the bottom.

To do list item - write a blog post.At work things move down your list because changes in business conditions have caused a reevaluation of priorities. For many of us, it is our manager who makes that call. After all, they know why we are doing it and they asked us to do the work in the first place. They are the customer for the work we do each day and they are responsible for holding us accountable.

But who is the customer for the work you have on your personal to do list? Who asked you to do that work in the first place? Why did you agree to do it and who is holding you accountable?

You are. You did. Only you know and you are responsible.

And that, I think, is where the problems start. And they will continue unless you are able to answer these four questions:

  1. Are you clear about why that item made it to your to-do list in the first place? You need to start with why (Simon Sinek can help there).
  2. Do you have a clear understanding about what specific actions the task involves (run 3.5 km and do 50 sit-ups) or have you just written something broad and vague like “get fit”?
  3. Have you committed to a clear date and time by which you intend to complete each task? Is it in your calendar complete with reminders?
  4. Are you able to articulate what standard of work is acceptable? The draft blog post I am currently looking at does not meet the standard attached to my task for today of “Write weekly post” so, much as I might want to, I will not be crossing that item off my list until I have actually hit the publish button.

Even if you have clear answers to all of those question circumstances might change. New priorities might emerge and the date for delivery on something else can slip or you might only have time to complete a 2 km run today. You know why you are running and the important piece may be getting into the habit of running not the distance.

All of that isn’t that hard.

The bigger question is how will you go about holding yourself accountable? Who is responsible for noticing the task has been rescheduled three times and asking you to explain? Who has the role of pointing out that there are no tasks on your list that are helping you get to your why and then asking why?

I have been thinking about that a lot lately and I think I have some answers, but I would love to hear how you do it. How do you go about holding yourself accountable? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2015 8:00 am

    A very good question! I tell my husband my goals for the day and he “gleefully” holds me accountable. Telling people what I am up to and asking them to check in with me helps. I must admit, I love writing lists, but the follow through leaves alot to be desired!

    • September 7, 2015 8:08 am

      Thanks Barb. A number of people I have spoken to about this have said that they find their partner, for a range of reasons, is the wrong person to hold them accountable.Though none of them mentioned sharing their goals each day with that partner. Making that request for people to check in to see how you are going is also a key piece of the puzzle.

      • September 7, 2015 8:14 am

        I can see why using your partner can be difficult, as they can push emotional buttons more readily than someone who is more objective. I feel that we can take criticism from people other than our partners more readily.
        The discipline to actually take action on items on your to do list – without even thinking about it (leaving it open to procrastination/distraction) is most difficult….I try and use Start-Do-Notice-Think…and not wait for it to be perfect, as long as what needs to be done is at least on its way! So I break down items to much smaller specific parts – like you said – not will get fit, but ride 10km etc etc.
        Oh, and how awesome it is to mark something off the list!!!

  2. September 7, 2015 5:05 pm

    I’ve had great value from Dave Allen’s GTD Method. Particularly
    a) The difference between a Project and a To-Do.Action item
    b) Separate In ‘box/lists’ and To-Do ‘box/lists
    c) Processing incoming stuff by asking “What is it?” and “What do I want to do about it?” (Do, Plan-It, Delegate, Defer, Dump)

    On the accountability front. I’m intrigued by the idea of NOT telling others about your goals or plans. See talk by Derek Sivers

    • September 9, 2015 7:01 am

      Thanks rhxhel. I have seen Derek Sivers’ TED talk and I think that can work for some people who have a particular approach to failure. I had never heard of GTD before ( The distinction between a project and an action is a good one to keep in mind. I know I get stuck some times thinking I am not going to be able to achieve the “project” but if I stop and ask “What is one thing I can do that would move me closer to it?” I can always find an action to take.

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