One Word You Never Want to Leave Off Items On Your To-Do List

Spring is almost here for those of us in the four-season-belt of the U.S. Flowers bloom, birds sing and life returns as the chill of winter subsides. Despite the budding all around us, many people find this to be a grueling time of the year. The holidays seem ages ago and summer vacation seems eons away. Oh, and those New Year’s resolutions, how are those coming along? I’d say it’s time for a booster shot to get us refocused, energized and taking actionable steps toward our goals again. 

to-do list

In high school I was neat and organized, with binder tabs and a planner. Not nerdy, just structured. I routinely jotted down my assignments at the end of each class period. However, college was a bit more of a challenge. Assignments were no longer straightforward. Each year, I tried a new way to stay on top of everything that was stacking up on my to-do list. Somehow I survived. Then, with an uncanny ability to procrastinate (a side effect of perfectionism) and a scattered approach to staying focused on what needed to get done to achieve my goals (graduate), I launched into the throes of graduate school.

Luckily, before my first semester was over (and after a warning from my advisor), I decided that if I was going to succeed, things had to change. I had to up my game, get my act together and increase my focus on the things I needed to do along the way. Enter, Getting Things Done by David Allen (among other resources – I needed a lot of help). One of the key elements I learned from the GTD perspective was to break things down into what Allen calls “next actions.” This was a life saver. My tasks changed from things like “Write paper for Smith’s class” to “Read one source article for paper in Smith’s class by Thursday.” Big difference. Now, I’m focused, I know what’s next and I know when I’m making progress. The difference was simple: verbs.

Every item on my to-do list starts with a verb. Here are 3 practical reasons your to-do list items should too.

Verbs Alleviate Ambiguity
As human beings, we struggle with ambiguity. It keeps us from taking action. In One Question by Ken Coleman, author Jim Collins says people aren’t risk averse, they are ambiguity averse. With uncertainty, we get stuck; we don’t take action. Verbs eliminate this obstacle. Check out the difference. Let’s say my to-do list reads, “Dry Cleaning.” What does that mean? Am I supposed to pick clothes up or drop clothes off? Given the ambiguity, I’m likely to head home rather than stopping at the cleaners and asking, “Do you have anything here that belongs to me?” Get rid of ambiguity and get unstuck. Add a verb and never wonder again.

Verbs Increase Focus
In coaching people toward optimal performance, I’ve learned that our brains perform best when we focus them on a specific action to be taken. This explains my polarized responses when it came time to write papers in college. Either, I didn’t know where to begin and therefore procrastinated. Or, I launched into an unfocused frenzy of unorganized and incomplete components for a paper. Neither helpful or effective. Verbs help us to focus on what we must do to complete one task and move on to the next. Planting a garden? You can direct your focus through to-do items like, “Identify 3 useful articles about choosing plants for your garden,” or “Purchase top soil.” Verbs help you focus on one thing at a time. That is efficient and effective.

Verbs Make for Measurable Outcomes
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when we’ve actually accomplished something. “Clean out the garage” is a good example. When, exactly, do I cross that off the list? “Sweep the garage floor.” Now that is something I can measure. Either I did it and it’s done or it isn’t. Maybe this is why my parents and I could never come to consensus on whether or not my room had been cleaned when I was kid. Today, I find great power in making my to-dos measurable by using verbs. For each item I can cross off my list, I experience a sense of accomplishment (albeit small at times) and from that I build tremendous momentum. I’ve taken away the gray space in my to-do list; no more wiggle room. Add verbs and you can measure your achievements and build momentum to stay the course, even for the hairiest of goals.

Since that first semester of graduate school, I have spread the word about the magic of using verbs in your to-do list. Verbs turn your to-do list into a list of action items, things to actually accomplish.
This applies in the context of goal planning too. One of the biggest faults I see when helping clients develop a systematic plan for achieving their goals is a lack of verbs. “Lose weight” makes a great dream, but where are the actions? How are you going to do it? What can you do today? I encourage people to identify the actionable next steps that will get them going on the path to success. Then, together, we make it real with items like, “Drink 6 bottles of water today,” for living a healthier lifestyle, “Email Steven to request a meeting for investment advice,” on opening a business, or “Study at least one hour each night after dinner” for finishing up that degree. Success requires activity and activity means verbs. Get doing.

Question: What other tips have helped you make the most of your action items? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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