Three Questions to Ask Before Making Your To-Do List

This article was originally published by Fast Company here

I have a few close people in my life who are older and much wiser than me. I love speaking with them and picking up perspectives and insights. Recently, I was in a meeting with one of them, and he used a term I hadn’t heard before as he spoke about “Need To-Dos” and “Must To-Dos.”

“Make sure you pay attention to the Must To-Dos,” he said. “Because the Need To-Dos can take up all your time.”

I’ve certainly heard other phrases that encapsulate this concept of ensuring you are doing the things that will have the biggest impact. Focus on the important, not the urgent. Get out of the whirlwind. Differentiate between “A” tasks and “B” tasks. But his phraseology resonated with me in a different way.


How often do you say, “I need to do this…” just before shifting your focus to something completely different from what you were doing before?

“I’d like to play this game with you, but I need to do laundry.”

“I can’t go workout; I need to prepare for a meeting.”

“I don’t have time to think about strategy for our customers; I need to approve invoices.”

I bet you’ve said something pretty similar to the first two statements. And maybe you’ve never said the third one out loud, but through your actions, you may have demonstrated something like it. To be fair, Need To-Dos are often things that you, well, need to do right now. But just as often, they are simply an easy distraction from something you could do that would be much more valuable. And even if you actually need to do them, generally the timing is much more flexible than you admit—and it’s something you can make time for later.


Contrast that with something you must do. The concept of “must” involves compulsion, not coercion. The energy to do a Must is intrinsic, not forced on you by external powers. I must do this because I so desire that.

“I must spend time with her, because I really want this relationship to work.”

“I must practice this song, because I want to perform it extraordinarily well.”

“I must take time to research this solution, because it could totally change our business.”

The hard part about Must To-Dos is identifying what it is you must do. You can’t figure that out until you determine what you want the Must To-Do to accomplish. You have to complete the right part of the sentence before the left part. Said better, you have to be clear about what you want out of life both right now and in the future.

Whether it’s in your business, your relationships, or your personal life, you must figure out what your desired state is—your definition of success for that part of your life—before you can determine what you must do to realize it. And then you must have the discipline to actually do it.

Need To-Dos are much easier because we can take someone else’s direction, even if we’re not incredibly invested in the “why” behind the need. My boss or my spouse or the government said I need to do this, so I guess I need to. Must To-Dos are much harder—they require forethought, planning, and hard choices on your part.


Here are three questions that may help you identify Must To-Dos versus Need To-Dos:

1. When I look back, what will I wish I had done? I have found this to be an incredible question to help put current situations and decisions in perspective. Three years from now, will I wish I had spent this time with my son or working on this project? Tomorrow morning, what will I wish I had to eat or drink tonight?

2. Is there anyone who can do this other than me? This is a great question to help learn to delegate. Am I just doing this because I’ve always done it or because it’s actually a good use of time? I ask myself this question all the time, and it often leads to me either delegating the task or identifying a need for our organization to add domain experts.

3. Does this help us win? My favorite definition of strategy is the answer to the question of how you win. It first asks that you define what winning is, but it is incredibly clarifying. This question really helps identify processes within an organization that are wasting time and not relevant for the current strategy. It’s so liberating when the answer to this is no and you get to eliminate something out of your business or out of your life.

There is very little joy in life that results from doing things you feel like you need to do. On the other hand, there’s nothing better than accomplishing something that is so compelling to you that you simply must do it. Those are the To-Dos that make all the difference.

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