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How Many Items are on Your To-Do List?

What is the optimum number of items on your daily To-Do list? 3, 5, or 8? Read on to learn how to make sure you’re getting the most out of your day.

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While recently reading the Steven Kolter book on achieving peak performance, entitled The Art of Impossible, I picked up on an interesting point the author made: He has eight items on his daily To-Do list. Well, this blew my mind as I didn’t think it was possible to get more than five concrete things done to move your endeavor/life/goals, forward on a daily basis. While there are always smaller tasks on my daily list, I believed five big tasks were the limit of my cognitive ability.

The challenge is that goals are binary; either you accomplish them or you don’t. And while goal setting can be systemized, in the end, you’re going to need to actually do them to accomplish anything. Either you execute against your goals to achieve what you want, or you don’t. It’s more monotonous than anything else, but this author’s view challenged my view that anything past five daily tasks would cause one to lose focus. Since this was a book on doing the impossible, I decided to look into the topic more in-depth.

The Why

Why do we put our thoughts on paper anyhow, and why is a written format better than a digital one? I believe there is something about putting ideas on paper, and the act of executing against them, day to day, that makes us feel alive. That helps us focus on reaching our full potential and doing something big with small daily steps.

Now, after you’ve gotten clear on your goals (which is beyond the scope of this post, but for a future post), daily success is just winning every day by completing your daily To-Do list. In referencing Kotler, this is what doing something impossible looks like. If you want to do something substantial, you need to break that actional vision down into small steps that you execute against every day. I suppose there are ultra-successful people who don’t make to-do lists or have a similar process; I’ve just never heard of them.

3/5/8?

How much can effectively get done in a day to feel you have forwarded your goals by 1 or 2%? As author Cal Newport describes “deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.” What is the limit of your focus if you’re a high agency type or hard-driving entrepreneur? And getting clear on your goals, what will move your endeavor forward?

In books such as Organize Tomorrow Today, the authors in their OTT (Organize Tomorrow Today) method suggest that you should look to work on three tasks on your daily To-Do list. For me, it’s been five tasks on my To-Do list; I’ve used the Power List, and like this idea of gamifying the process and not breaking the chain by completing all five tasks. I’ve settled on doing five significant tasks a day, and most days, I can complete the tasks in front of me. Not all tasks are created equal, and while I may have the mental energy to get through the first one or two, it is the later ones that become difficult and where grit plays are a part.

But this begs the question: Am I getting the most out of myself and my life? Will getting up to eight tasks on my To-Do list significantly impact the goals that I want to achieve? Or will it make me lose my focus? One of the beauties of having a To-Do list that you craft with purpose is that once you’re done, you’re done.

The Practice

The key is to keep doing and not overthink it; trust the process. That once you’re clear on your goals, you write out the list the day before. I write them down physically, and start on them once I get up first thing in the AM. Usually, my most challenging tasks have to do with writing and take the most cognitive energy.

I can’t bring myself to do eight yet, but I will start to experiment and work my way up one task at a time. The reality is if you’re not completing your five or even your three, work on those for a few weeks and be consistent before you move on to additional tasks. As management guru Peter Drucker states, “everything requires time. It is the one truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses up time.”

In this quest of chasing our dreams, living our lives to the fullest, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing the best, we can with what we have. And not fall back on some of the common knowledge of what is possible, but to truly push us towards achieving what we set out to do and reach our full potential.

Jonathan ‘Yoni’ Frenkel heads Partnerships at Tulsa-based Atento Capital. He aspires to be a high-agency type and is a self-professed performance optimization nerd.  He can be reached on LinkedIn here.

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