Your To-Do List Isn’t Working. Here’s How to Fix It in 1 Step

This blog article is written by Sabina Nawaz who is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. It first appeared on The reason why I included this article on my blog is because Sabina takes a story that we have heard over and over again from multiple sources, and neatly applies it to a tool that we all use so ineffectively.

You’re probably familiar with the story for a jar that represents the time available in your life. You fill the jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand representing the big, medium, and small stuff you do every day. If you start with pebbles and sand, you’ll run out of space for the big rocks – the things that matter most. But, by starting with the rocks, you’ll still have room for the pebbles and sand; they’ll just take up far less of your precious time.

A handy way to think about rocks is that they’re large projects, ambitious targets or even goals that currently feel impossible that have multiple steps and take a long time to complete. Pebbles are medium-sized, single-step projects or activities. Sand items are tasks that probably take no more than five minutes to complete.

The problem is most people put rock, pebble, and sand tasks on one long list and become overwhelmed. When you put things down on a linear list, it loses out on the perspective of looking at it from different attributes like importance, urgency, alignment, effort, etc. Instead of slogging through the stack, we shut down or procrastinate. Or, we don’t schedule enough time for the big rocks and give too much time to the small stuff preventing us from meeting important goals.

Here are four steps to segment your to-do list to help you prioritize the most important items, stay focused, and get more done.

Distinguish between rocks and pebbles

Everyone’s definition of rocks and pebbles will be different. Invest a little time in creating clear distinctions, and you’ll better prioritize the rocks. Experiment using these simple guidelines:

Rocks feels heavier than pebbles. Rocks can have emotional weight. They create a sense of resistance or anxiety to completing or starting a task, even when we’re not clear why. Pebbles, on the other hand, are effortless to tick off. You’ll know you’ve discovered a rock masquerading as a pebble when it’s a single step, but you don’t want to do it. For example, you notice you’re avoiding scheduling a one-on-one with your manager, a one-line email that will take 30 seconds to write and send. After some thought, you realize you’re afraid that she’s not happy with your performance. The task, then, isn’t as simple as scheduling a meeting, but includes dealing with your emotions and prepping for the discussion. You might need to attend to additional details before scheduling, such as gathering data, calling a friend for support, going for a walk, and clearing your calendar afterwards to process the feedback.

Create three separate lists

To use your time well, create a list for each category. I even have a subsection under each for phone calls because I can make them when in transit or waiting for something. You can separate out work and personal items as well. This is what works well for me. Here’s a snapshot of my list from last week:

Break up the rocks

When you’re overwhelmed by the number of rocks on your list, assign them an order and break them down into smaller steps. Perhaps you’ll spend an hour on part of Rock One before moving on to tackle part of Rock Two and so on. Remember, the items on your different lists aren’t meant to be finished today. Assign priorities and timelines so that you get a sense of progress along the way.

For each rock, take the first small step

I don’t like writing client proposals, so the evening before, I save the template under my client’s name and leave the document open on my desktop. That first, tiny step lowers the barrier to starting the next morning.

Now that you can clearly segment the tasks on your list, when you find a rock overwhelming, instead of spending two hours procrastinating on a video game, you can tackle a few pebbles or some sand. Walking from one building to another on a work campus? Make that short phone call on your sand list. On hold with your doctor’s office? Complete that LinkedIn recommendation for your colleague.

I often joke that it’s great when I have a big, scary rock on my list because I get a lot of smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand done.


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