The Number One Thing to Stop Doing to Become More Effective

The Number One Thing to Stop Doing to Become More Effective

how to be more effective

We all have this crazy love-hate relationship with our To-Do list, right? (Ok, for many it might be straight-up hate or profound avoidance.) I get it because I talk to clients about it every day.

But there’s one major problem with how most of us approach our to-do list: We become obsessed with getting it ALL done ASAP! We start creating “Dream Lists” of 15-20 things that we are determined to complete today. Then, we only knock out 4-6 of them because other things get in the way, and we feel frustrated and depressed. Does this sound familiar?

If so, then I’m going to tell you the one secret that can immediately shift that destructive and disempowering pattern in your life. Even better, it’s something for you to STOP doing…Stop confusing your “Master List” for your “Today List.”


1. What is your “Master List”?

We all have dozens, if not hundreds, of things on our plates. Writing them down allows you to reflect and prioritize your actions. Capturing those tasks in one consistent place (a notebook, software app, etc), establishes the beginning of your “Master List.”

Your “Master List” is the one place where all your actions live. It’s where all those possible actions hang out until you’re ready for them. But, it’s not what you work from during each day. Trying to work from your “Master List” will feel crazy overwhelming because it will, and should be, never-ending.

In the best of all possible worlds you will still have a to-do list on the day you die. Having the list is a sign that you’ve stayed engaged in your life all the way to the end. In other words, having a list is a GOOD thing.

“The only thing more important than your to-do list is your to-be list. The only thing more important than your to-be list is to be.”   – Alan Cohen

The types of tasks on the list may evolve over time, but having a “Master List” is every bit as important as having a calendar to remind you of when to show up for the dentist or that lunch date with your friend.


2. What is your “Today List”?

If your “Master List” is where all your actions live until you choose to complete them, then your “Today List” is the SHORT selection of the items that are your priority for today. This list should have no more than four items on it.

Just four tasks? (And I do mean tasks, not projects. Actions that you can complete in 5-30 minutes.) This might sound like horrifying levels of under-achievement. But, things are going to come up. That call from your client, that urgent email response, the last minute errand for your kid’s homework. New tasks show up in our lives constantly each day.

When we choose our four priority tasks intentionally each day, then we can both keep ourselves focused and leave space for the urgent things to arise without knocking us off course or making us feel overwhelmed.

What I teach my clients is that your four daily tasks include: your “Inspired Action” and 3 bonuses. Your “Inspired Action” is a commitment that you’re making to yourself. This one item, come hell or high water, will get done before the end of the day. Once that’s accomplished, then the other three items are your next top priorities.

If you get through all four tasks on any given day, then celebrate! Seriously… 3 minute dance party, at least. When you’re done celebrating, then you can decide if you want to go back to your “Master List” and choose another task to power through. Or, you can leave space for inspiration, flow, or other activities as they arise. You’ll likely choose what works based on your energy and schedule for the day.

“Make each day your masterpiece”  – John Wooden

When you stop confusing your “Master List” for your “Today List”, then you increase your ability to focus and decrease your persistent sense of overwhelm. It’s one of the simplest, and fastest tricks to immediately improve your effectiveness each day.

Have you been confusing your “Master List” and “Today List?” Please share with us in the comment section below!
Erin Wells is The Intentionality Expert, Productivity Strategist and founder of Chosen Course. Erin helps high achievers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and influencers to improve their productivity, focus, and effectiveness in their work and daily life. Erin is the author of Inspired Action: Create More Purpose, Productivity, & Peace in Your Life. You can Download your FREE Start Your Master List eGuide to learn more about To-Do’s Done Right.


  1. Erin your article is so nice…but what is the most important thing for continuing to make a “master list” daily? I try it many times but never continue it for long.

    • Hi Vicky,
      It’s a habit that’s rather like getting use to writing all your appointment info in your calendar every day. It takes practice. But, more than anything you have to create a relationship with the tool you’re using to hold your master list that allows the habit to become as easy as possible.

      If you’re just writing it on a random sheet of paper, then you aren’t creating a consistent relationship with a specific tool. That’s why I would encourage you to choose a specific notebook or a well-designed project management app to hold this information for you. Just like you would buy a good day planner for your calendar or choose calendar software that’s a good fit for you. There needs to be one place where this information lives in your world, and you have to develop the consistent habits of capturing new tasks onto it and reviewing it each day to decide your priorities for your Today list.

      For more about getting this system up and running for you, I would definitely pick up the free Start Your Master List eGuide that I created to walk you through the initial system setup and offer some tool recommendations. You can grab it here:

      Good luck!

  2. Hi Erin, I love the idea about having one mission and 3 bonuses! Just a slight change of words, but it shows clearly that one has more impact than the other.
    I have been using Trello for my weekly goals, which I plan together with my husband every Sunday. Each of us has 3 goals each day which we mark with labels, so we know who of us will accomplish this goal. This is really helpful as we can interact on the goals and track the progress.
    I noticed that sometimes, we have tasks which are too huge. I’m going to take into account what you wrote about actions (5-30 min.). This is really helpful to not feel overwhelmed. Thank you!

  3. Can’t agree more. I used to have a long to-do list, but I never get all of the tasks done.
    Like what you mentioned through your ‘masterlist’.
    I have then learned to prioritize and work on those that will yield the most result.
    Usually only a few important tasks. 🙂

    • Thanks Shawn. Yeah, it’s a common confusion and frustration for folks. This distinction can make a huge difference to your emotional attitude, which by extension improves your overall productivity.
      After all, it’s a lot easier to stay productive when you feel focused and energetic… rather than frustrated and depressed ;).

  4. Great article thanks, I tend to break my 5 year goals into annual goals, into monthly, into weekly then into daily tasks, as not to confuse the daily tasks with my “Master List”

    When do you set your tasks, the night before or in the morning?

    • Hi Chris,
      Honestly, morning or evening… it’s your choice. But, I do encourage you to choose a consistent time.
      Many of my clients like to choose their 4 tasks at the end of the work day for the following day. Personally, I’m a fan of first thing in the morning when I have a better sense of my personal energy level and what I’m feeling inspired about.
      My task management system ( also sometimes pops some items to the top at the beginning of the day that I hadn’t thought about previously, so I weigh those against items that I might have previously considered priorities.

  5. Erin thank you for this simple distinction between a “master list” and a “today” list. The two lists have definitely been confused for me on many occasions.

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