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How a simple action list can improve productivity

Having a hard time ticking off your to-do list? Maybe it’s time you switch to an action list and start maximizing productivity at work.



It’s no secret that people feel busier and pulled in more directions than ever. Yet, are we actually achieving anything more? Studies show that although most of us are present for a full day of work, we’re only productive for about three hours a day! Other OECD data suggests that the hours we spend at work are declining too. So why are we all so frazzled? Why are our to-do lists growing longer and our frustrations mounting?

The workplace of today is more challenging than ever – and it calls for different tools. There are distractions everywhere and our attention is pulled in a myriad of different directions. On the plus side, this means there’s no shortage of ideas. We’re constantly exposed to new thinking from our industries and almost any question we have can be answered instantly. The downside is the impact this has on productivity is questionable (at best).

As we go through our days consuming more and more information, we’re likely to add many more items to our to-do list. At first, this is not a problem but then the dreaded to-do list starts looming larger and larger each day and our feelings of inadequacy mount. If you use an online task manager, it can be even worse as you can capture an infinite number of to-dos. The impact this has on morale is palpable.

Have you finished a day with more on your list than when you started? Me too. It’s demoralizing. So what’s the solution?

Start using a “Daily Action List”

Instead of a to-do list being your tool of choice, try using a Daily Action List. The difference? At the end of each day, you write down your top priorities for the next day. When you start work, you start with your top priority and do nothing else until that is done. Then you work on your second priority until that is done, and so on.

An action list is different because you rewrite it each day. It does not grow. Instead, your action list perfectly reflects your current priorities and ensures you’re working on the things that are most important.

Use your “To-Do List” as a reference only

A to-do list is still a great tool for capturing ideas and tasks, but it’s not suitable for directing your day. When you create your action list for tomorrow, refer to your to-do list to see if anything should be added to your day. But also, think about your bigger goals and what actions you could take tomorrow to move you closer to those. Freeing yourself from the to-do list, allows you to think more strategically and get more of those high-level actions done.

Use your to-do list as a guide to making your action list. In this way, you aim to accomplish more than just meager daily tasks.

Use your to-do list as a guide to making your action list. In this way, you aim to accomplish more than just meager daily tasks. (Source)

For best results, aim low

Have you noticed that the more successful people are, the fewer priorities they have on their daily list? That’s no coincidence. By aiming low and not attempting to do too much, successful people know that they have a much greater chance of actually doing those few things on their list. So, with this in mind; limit your Action list to 3-5 items each day, and ensure that each item can be done in less than an hour.

Wait, what? Only three hours of work? Yes, potentially, but you’ll see how effective it is once you put this into practice.

Remember, the aim here is to focus on getting more of the important things done – not just more things! Can you imagine the cumulative effect this system would have if you just did your most important action each day? It would be phenomenal.

Take disciplined action

Try switching to an action list for the next week and see if you notice the difference. Remember the rules though;

– Write a new Action List each day (and really consider your priorities)

– Limit your Action List to three to five items

– Each item should be small enough to complete in under an hour

Now with your Action List in hand, you need to get into the habit of actually doing those actions. This sounds obvious, but over the years, our unworkable to-do lists have taught us that things on our list are optional. On an Action List, they’re not.

Be disciplined and start with your first action. Work until you complete that. Take a break, then move to your second action and work until you complete that. Keep going until your list is done. Only then should you even consider doing something that’s not on your list!

Once you’ve tried using an Action List, you’ll realize its power to double or triple your productivity. Don’t let this just be another article you read about productivity. Commit to trying it for a week!

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation for writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

Fiona Adler writes about entrepreneurship at and is the founder of—a productivity tool for individuals and teams. With an MBA, multiple business successes, and a family living in a foreign country, she enjoys pushing the envelope to get the most out of life and loves helping others do the same.