Mastering the Art of To-Do Lists: Tips from the Expert

Posted in Balanced Lifestyle, Book Reviews/Interviews, Work/Life Balance | June 28, 2011 |

Do you make a to-do list? Do you follow up on it?

To-do list is a standard tool if you are trying to stay productive. Even if you do not believe in living your life by the list it is still a great way to clear your mind of unnecessary information and make sure that you do not forget any important tasks or dates. I have written before about smart to-do lists but today I want to share with you an interview with the biggest expert on to-do lists that I know, a motivational speaker, life coach and an inspiring blogger behind the Personal Excellence Blog – Celestine Chua.

I have been following Celes’s blog for over two years and was constantly inspired by her articles and her remarkable personality. Celes is the fountain of productivity and creative ideas. Last year she ran her first 30 Days to Live a Better Life Challenge, which she followed up with the Fasting Experiment (21 days, WOW!) and The Million Dollar Challenge which is in progress right now. I asked Celes several questions about how she manages to stay so productive and still keep her life in balance.

1. Celes, you seem to really have a lot on your plate (running challenges on your blog, always thinking of new and exciting projects, maintaining a healthy lifestyle.) How do you manage to keep your To-Do list under control?

Hey Anastasiya! First off, thanks for inviting me for this interview, and I’m very excited to be “speaking” to everyone here!

It’s interesting you used the words “under control”, because how I manage my to-do list is that I don’t attempt to control it. I see the to-do list as a “bucket” or a placeholder to dump all my pending ideas/tasks, but that’s about it. I don’t let this list dictate my life or determine what I have to do for the day. That means I don’t attempt to clear up my list every day – I just do whatever I’m inspired to do at the moment, and then work in that flow zone. Whatever gets done will be done in the day; whatever that doesn’t get covered will just be rolled over to the next day.

While it sounds unorganized and ineffective way of handling the tasks, it actually isn’t. Because I’m working by inspiration, I’m actually a lot more productive today than I was in the past, when I was using a very time/calendar driven approach method of getting things done. I get from one item to the next very quickly. And most importantly, I’m incredibly happy and excited every second of the day because I’m doing what I love every second.

One thing I find helpful is scheduling time-bound tasks (i.e. tasks with specific deadlines that have to be done on a certain time/day) in the calendar, then removing them from the list (so it doesn’t clutter up). With these things out of the way, it then leaves my schedule fluid for whatever I’m most inspired to work on at that moment.

It’s important that we see to-do lists as an support system to help us become more effective, vs. something that we’re obligated to finish. Else, it’s easy to become trapped by our own to-do lists, which is ironic given that they are supposed to help us be more productive in the first place.

2. In one of your posts you were talking about the 20/80 To-Do list. What does it mean and how can it be helpful?

The 20/80 list is one of my favorite productivity tools that I share with my readers. There is a 80/20 rule popularized by an Italian economist that states that 80% of the wealth in the world is actually owned by 20% of the world’s population. This rule extends beyond economics – you can see the unequal, disproportionate 80/20 relationship everywhere in life.

Similarly, even though we may have a hundred and one things in our to-do list, not all of them have the same importance. Some are more important than the others – in a 80/20 way. If you analyze your list, you’ll find that 20% of the tasks contribute to 80% of results in your life.

These are what I call the 20% high value tasks – such as working on life-long goals, starting your business, creating your 10-year plan, improving your relationships with your family, and so on. The remaining are the 80% low value tasks. Typically these are tasks like checking facebook, running errands, checking/rechecking email, administrative work, watching TV, etc. For this same reason, you should prioritize the bulk of your efforts on your 20% high value tasks, and stop wasting time on the other 80% which may take a lot of time but don’t generate any concrete outcome.

3. A lot of people find To-Do lists frustrating (they plan too much and then they have a long list of tasks that never get done.) What are some tips to not overplan?

Plan to the extent where you get clarity on what you have to do next, then take action right away. The role of planning is to empower you to take action. So if you’re finding planning a chore, then clearly something isn’t right. You shouldn’t be planning for the sake of planning.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have sufficient information to proceed? (If yes, then you should proceed)
  • What am I planning for? Is there a positive output that’s going to come out of this planning process? (If no, you should cut it short and take action)
  • Will this plan help me in achieving my end goal? (If yes, then continue working on the plan, but always be mindful that action needs to occur at some point for the goal to manifest)

4. Celes, what would be your most important advice to people who want to simplify their daily schedule?

Start small first, and go slow as you build it up. With each item in your calendar, ask yourself if you really need to do that. Does this make a difference in your life 1 year, 5 years from now? If not, then take that out. At the same time, introduce a few 20% high value tasks to your life – those tasks that matter the most and will create the most impact in your life when you do them.

As you do them, your fulfillment in your daily life will start to increase. Keep doing that and building on this as you go along. Never forget to experience the joy of what you’re doing and experiencing vs. getting caught up in to-dos. That’s what life is about – living life to the fullest in every moment, whereby the moments are created by you yourself.

5. What type of a To-Do list do you personally use? Is it just a piece of paper or some digital type? Do you have any tips on how to pick the best type of To-Do list for each person?

I use whatever tools that are most conducive at that point in time. Usually that means either a new notepad file, or a writing pad. I’ve never been a big user of complex GTD productivity systems – I tried using them and it felt like I was trying to make the system work out for me vs. truly being productive using it. That said, I’m sure the systems work for the others – the key here is to use whatever works best for you.

Ultimately, there is no one size fits all solution. The best productivity system is the one you create for yourself, whether by combining multiple tools, or by custom creating yours through Excel, and so on. My tips would be to use what makes you feel most comfortable. If you like using pen/paper and you usually work away from the computer, then stick to the traditional writing pads. If you prefer storing information digitally and you spend a lot of time at the computer, then going digital might be more conducive.

Thanks Celes for an awesome interview!

How about you? What’s your opinion about to-do lists? Leave your smart thoughts below and share this article with your friends.

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Keep it balanced!

Smart Thoughts (1)

  1. Kylie Oakes-Ati says:


    Thank you for this interview. I agree with Celes’ approach of following your inspiration in order to decide what to do next. This is definitely the most satisfying and productive ways to work. However, in some circumstances it needs a little modification. For instance, when your boss needs a particular thing done urgently, or you are up against a deadline for a client, it may not work to simply wait for inspiration to strike!

    Hopefully, if you’ve been following your inspiration and completing tasks you will already be well on the way already with the work for your boss or client – because hopefully your job is full of many inspirational things for you to do.

    Also, for those less inspirational things, your general feelings of happiness and achievement from the work you enjoy can also leave you energised to do the less exciting parts of your job in a timely manner as well so they don’t become emergencies.

    For me, having a to-do list – which includes deadlines – is essential to keep track of all the big and little requests and tasks that come up constantly, and helps me to focus on which jobs need to be done soon and which ones can wait. If these decisions can be combined with what I feel inspired to do, then that is ideal.