Have you ever come across an old to-do list and it seemed like it was written in a different language? There are bits you understood perfectly well, but other stuff that, without the context you had at the time, were beyond comprehension.

“Talk with John re. Tuesday’s call.” What Tuesday? John who? And yet at the same time despite the murkiness there are clearly a lot of things that the list must have helped you achieve.

We’ve all experienced the positive effects of creating such a list. Just getting things down generates a sense of order and relief. There it is in front of us, the menu of things we need to and/or want to do. It helps us see the action options we have in context of the other things in our life, so that we can make good priority calls.

Also, finishing stuff on the list feels good. You’re acknowledging success (your own). That feels good whether it’s you doing the acknowledging, or your boss. But what about when your never-ending to-do list sparks stress not celebration, how do you keep your lists in tip top shape? Here are some of the common problems we see, and some thoughts on tuning your lists so they can serve you better.

Problem 1: the list as a reminder of the failure to meet (unreal) deadlines

If we create unrealistic deadlines on our lists, we can see failure where there isn’t any. I often hear people say things like “I created the to-list for today and then didn’t get everything done, so I’ve failed.” And yet when I probe, what I hear is that the reason some of the things on today’s list didn’t get done is that reality changed and there were higher-priority things to do. So not working on the things on the list was the better choice.

Be very miserly when assigning deadlines. Most people give too many things deadlines in an effort to motivate themselves, but they generate failure and demotivation instead.

So take a hard look: that thing you are saying you need to get done today, is that because it’s truly that critical?  Or is it that you’d like to get it done today as long as reality doesn’t throw you anything that’s more important?

Try taking a long-term view of your lists. Assume that certain things may still be on the list after weeks or possibly even months because they just haven’t been important enough for your attention, given everything else life threw your way. The world has presented you with higher-priority things to do, so leaving that thing undone was the right choice.

Problem 2: our lists don’t help us move forward as quickly as we could because we haven’t finished the thinking

Do you have something on your list like, “Roof”? “Christmas”?  “Proposal”?  Something like this usually means “I really must think some more about that” or “I mustn’t forget that” rather than “this is exactly what needs to be done next”.

It was good to get the thing out of your head and clear up the mental space it required to store it. Even better to now finish the thinking. Ask yourself what the very next physical, visible step will be on that thing, and then get that down. “Call Susan re. recommendation for roofer”, “Create Christmas gift list in Microsoft Word”, and “Browse client’s web site for ideas regarding their needs” are all better next actions. They leave you with no thinking left to do, and increase the chances that when you’ve got the time and energy to act that these things will move forward.

Be kind to your future self; that self that will be faced with this list in the future. Only add actions once you’ve phrased them in a way you think maximises the chances they’ll actually get done. Pay attention to what it feels like to put that thing on the list. If it’s too big, like “clean out garage”, try breaking it down so that the first step is doable, maybe even attractive, say “delegate cleaning out the garage to my son.”

Problem 3: we don’t truly believe in the list as an appropriate tool for our complex lives

Sometimes we get the sense that something as simple as an action list can’t possibly be the answer to our problems. Surely something more strategic, more important, more complex must be required to get a handle on our work day?

In The Checklist Manifesto, which was recently on the New York Times bestseller list, Atul Gawande addressed this head on: “We may admit that errors and oversights occur — even devastating ones,” he wrote, in reference to his fellow surgeons, a sometimes less-than-modest group. “But we believe our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.”

Gawande then goes on to describe how the use of simple checklists in operating theatres dramatically reduced mortality rates during surgery.

Don’t let their simplicity fool you. Action lists are some of your most powerful tools. Craft them carefully and sensitively, and they’ll help you get out the office door faster and with more of the right stuff ticked off.