How great leaders get beyond their to-do list

Remember that time when smartphones weren’t a thing? When we would go home at the end of the day and check our messages on the answering machine?

When our time out in the world was spent in that place, in that moment instead of being pinged by 117 notifications at any given time?

No question – our time is strapped! Without exaggerating, our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at almost any given time.

We have a list of things to do at home, a list of things to do in the car, a list of things to do at work – today, this week, this month, this year.

As leaders, though, isn’t our job to rise above the chaos of seemingly urgent and direct ourselves and our team to focus on the bigger goals, the long game, the right direction?

As a leader, I’m willing to bet you’re strategic, you’re a thinker, you’ve got vision.

But, the reality is that all that vision has to be implemented and in many cases, you have to manage the implementation too.

How, then? How do we lead the big picture while rocking the day-to-day details?

Here are four tips for getting beyond your to-do list.

1. Keep ONE to-do list

I know this sounds big but stay with me.

When we have multiple to-do lists across multiple applications, notebooks, and physical locations, it’s very difficult to know if the thing you’re working on is the best most important thing to focus on.

And, focusing on the right thing at the right time is what great leadership is made of – it’s how you move beyond reacting to tasks in your day.

So often I see clients with lists in their email, a random document, an app on their phone, the platform of choice at work, calendar appointments, etc.

Centralizing to-do’s allows you to prioritize tasks amongst each other instead of prioritizing in silos.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish this and it varies based on the type of work and life tasks that you need to manage — and if you’re a paper and pen person, stick with it but carry that one list with you.

Or, if you’re willing to jump into using all that tech to your advantage, there are a few (free) tools that you can use to get all your to-do’s in one place and prioritize accordingly.


Todoist is a simple to-do and task list manager with a beautiful user-interface that allows you to add tasks, assign deadlines, set reminders, use labels and filters, and syncs across devices.

I use Todoist and find it the perfect place to store and manage all my to-do’s.

It syncs instantly between my desktop, my laptop, my iPad and my iPhone, along with my google calendar. Sounds a bit much, but it guarantees I have one organized list, everywhere I go.

Sounds a bit much, but it guarantees I have one organized list, everywhere I go.


Similar to Todoist, Wunderlist allows you to set up projects, assign due dates, collaborate and reorganize all of your to-do’s in one spot.

Also, syncs across devices and integrates with dozens of other applications so you can automate your task management process as much as possible.


Asana falls more into the project management category but is super effective for task list management.

You set up various projects with tasks within and then manage your tasks from a central “my tasks” view where you can drag, drop, and reorganize based on the categories of “Today,” “Upcoming,” and “Later.”

Do you already use a few different applications and you’re interested in being able to see everything in one place automatically?

Check out Taco. It pulls everything from 40+ services into one list for you to reorganize as you like.

Now, your ONE to-do list doesn’t have to be a digital but I recommend that it is so that you can easily carry tasks forward, rearrange, and reprioritize as needed.

I would also encourage to choose something that has a friendly smartphone application so you can add to your ONE to-do list on the fly and not have to worry about reconciling it later.

2. Determine your next day’s top three tasks at the end of every workday.

Momentum is incredibly important for staying focused and continuing to build on accomplishments and progress day to day.

A quick and effective way to make sure that you can hit the ground running (in the right direction!) each morning is to set the next day’s top three objectives at the end of each workday.

When I was working in the Privy Council Office with the federal government, we had to remove all confidential information from our desks each night, and lock it in our super-secure, heavy lead, combination-lock filing cabinets.

Given the work I was doing, that meant pretty much everything had to be locked up at night.

Now I didn’t know it at the time but I have a bit of ADD — I can get distracted by what’s in front of me and I easily forget about what’s not.

That’s not good when there are important and sometimes urgent state secrets, locked away in a cabinet. So, I got in the habit of making myself a list each night before going home.

In my case, the list had to be a bit cryptic so it could be left out, but basically, it summarized, in order of importance, everything that was still hanging over me and needed my attention in the morning.

This solved the ADD problem of “out of sight, out of mind” but it also delivered a few unexpected benefits:  

1) I felt a sense of comfort and ease going home each night — knowing the desk was clear, the office was tidied up, and everything I needed to remember was spelled out for me on a list –  I could literally let go of work, and have a life;

2) I arrived to a clean, organized office each morning which lifted my spirits and removed the “weighty sigh” that comes over me when I arrive to a desk piled with stuff, and;

3) It made me more strategic than ever before because the list of priorities, in order, was literally right in front of my nose as I started every single day.

Block out time each morning to complete most important – not the most urgent, but rather the bigger, important, actions, allows you to hit the ground running and it saves precious time figuring out where to start.

3. Do a weekly brain dump

We all know that feeling of millions of thoughts swirling around and the idea of organizing and prioritizing it all.

Especially as strategic and visionary types – there are so many worthwhile projects and ideas that we’d love to get to that just seem to be pushed back or forgotten in order to face the demands of the day.

It’s easy to do. Putting fires out SEEMS more important than that strategic project that might shift culture, or increase revenue or create more meaning.

But, it’s simply not. It’s crucial to make space for the big picture projects that will ultimately make more of an impact on organizational success.

One way to keep your eye on the big picture is to do a weekly brain dump (maybe at the end of the day on Friday).

You can keep it as a project in whichever to-do list tool you use and take the time to list out all of the things that you’d love to get to but just haven’t been able to take action on yet.

Once it’s recorded, you can assign a date to look at it again or, better yet, decide the next action step that you need to take towards said goal and schedule it.

Not only will this help you move from reactive to proactive, increasing your focus on the big picture and getting you off the to-do treadmill, it’ll lower stress and free up headspace knowing that you’ve captured those items in your system.

4. Create a weekly creativity/vision time block

To take the brain-dump activity even further, schedule a non-negotiable weekly visioning session to create space for guilt-free attention on big-picture work — this is a good time to do your thinking about the brain-dump but also to reflect on how the tasks are getting you to your bigger goals (or not).

A number of our clients have found they like to stop somewhere for a coffee on the way into the office on Monday.

Many tell me if they get to the office, it’s too late — their schedule is jammed, urgencies arise, etc.

But, booking their day to start a bit later than usual, and then using that time to savor a skinny, non-fat, high octane, mocha frappa something — while reflecting on the big picture, day-dreaming a bit, making some notes, helps them boost their success all week long.

Coach’s Questions

Where are you focusing on the urgent and missing the important?  What prioritizing techniques resonate for you?  And, when are you going to start using them?