4 ways to make your to-do list a whole lot sexier

Takeaway: 4 scientifically proven ways to make your to-do list a whole lot sexier: frame the items on your list in a positive light; think about why your goals matter to you personally; divide your goals into bite-sized chunks; and create a “when-then” plan.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 37s.


Caroline Webb’s book, How To Have A Good Day, is a treasure trove of productivity advice that actually works. One of my favorite nuggets from the book is about how to make your to-do list quite a bit sexier. As David Allen says, “everything on your task list either attracts or repels you psychologically.”

After you figure out what’s on your plate for the day, here are a few ways to make the goals on that to-do list a lot sexier—pulled straight from How to Have a Good Day.

  1. 412wlot7tsl-_sx332_bo1204203200_Frame the items on your to-do list in a positive way. As Caroline puts it: “Either [our goals are] about doing more of something good, or they’re about doing less of something bad.” Luckily, research shows that goals framed in a positive, constructive way are more powerful than “avoidance goals” in leading us to become more productive (I’ve included an example of this below).
  2. Think about why your goals matter to you. Intrinsic goals are motivated by values meaningful to you, such as growth and relationships. These are much more motivating than extrinsic goals—efforts motivated by money, status, or other external factors. According to Caroline, the two categories of goals “work so differently that they’re processed in different parts of our brain.” The science tells us that we’re more likely to get something done when we take a moment to think about why it matters to us personally.”
  3. Create a “when-then” plan. To get something done, “it helps to get very specific about what we’ll do and when we’ll do it,” Caroline says. The effects of this can be astounding. One review of more than 200 studies showed that setting simple “implementation intentions” as part of a when-then plan made people as much as three times more likely to achieve their goals. Taking just a minute or two to create a simple when-then plan—like that you’ll walk to the gym when your energy dips during the workday—will go a long way in making you more likely to achieve your daily goals.
  4. Make your goals smaller. You’ll get more stuff done when you break your bigger daily goals into bite-sized chunks. In practice, you’re basically breaking an item on your to-do list down into many mini ones. This makes it feel as though your goals are more within reach. Ask yourself: what are the steps you need to reach that ultimate goal?

To put this into practice, let’s say you have a trip to Spain coming up, and you want to learn some Spanish. Instead of adding a boring, generic goal on your to-do list like:

Learn some Spanish for upcoming trip

You can make the goal more positive, meaningful, small, and situation-specific by redefining it:

Take four Duolingo lessons immediately following dinner in order to enjoy January’s trip to Spain that much more.

The goal is the exact same—but the difference is that the task is a lot less aversive to you, so you’re more likely to achieve it.

  • Great! It gave me more ideas & takeaways:

    1. When making my plan for tomorrow, to think of why it’s good for me to do the planned thing, and then in the day tomorrow to savour it, and start doing by listing what I would love in the activity and the result.

    I remember in an NLP course a lecturer started each lecture from why it’s good for us to know what he was going to teach in that lecture, and it greatly improved the effect of that lecture.

    2. Your “when-then” connected for me two techniques: using hooks, and also filling the calendar instead of having the to-do list.

    3. I also remembered that someone taught me to create scenarios, written in third face: instead of ‘to take Duolingo lessons’, I would then be writing ‘after dinner Olga takes her phone, sits comfortably and takes four Duolingo lessons with great pleasure and effective result, and she feels good with it’.

    Thank you! :)

  • Have you heard of BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits”? Those 4 points pretty much match up with his research and habit building experiments too. He’s got a simple 5-day habit builder that you can sign up for to show you how Tiny Habits works. Might be something to check out if you don’t know about it.

  • Pedro Silva

    As usual, great article!
    Also, kudos for spreading the love for Duolingo.

  • To put it in my own words, while attempting to be laconic for ease of initial remembering:

    1. Frame Positively
    2. Frame with Why it Matters to Me
    3. Specify What and When
    4. Break into Steps

    1. What improve. (Not what lessen.)
    2. Why do.
    3. What do. When do.
    4. Steps.

    Example: Learn some Spanish for upcoming trip.
    Better-fied: Take 4 Duolingo lessons right after dinner to enjoy January Spain trip more.
    Worse-ified: Stop procrastinating on learning Spanish.

    • Thanks. I’m copying this on to my Evernote. :)

  • Azim Anderson

    Adding an emotional incentive to a goal seems like a really great idea – my goals are really robotic so going to give it a try. I’m also a big love of number 4 – it seems obvious, but small goals provide small wins, and daily wins bring massive motivation. Thanks for the book shout out Chris, it’s on the reading list now!

  • feelthebern

    Great article – glad I went through my inbox and read this! I’ve just started reframing all my goals – from “read” to “read 10 pages of a book every day” (starting small) to “read 10 pages of a book every day before going to sleep to relieve stress, improve memory, and enjoy the peace that comes with it”. I certainly read more (you simply can’t stop once you start reading 10 pages) but I set it as a manageable goal that doesn’t make me avoid the goal overall. So far, it’s worked!

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