Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

It’s extremely easy to lose track of your goals without even realizing it.
Earlier this week, I talked about:
Even if you implement the to-dos in the above articles—even if your system is perfect—you’ll still falter along the way if you don’t take the time to review how you’re performing. I recently stumbled upon the daily schedule Benjamin Franklin kept:

Woah! Dude was super reflective. 
He started the day by asking himself, “What good will I do today?,” and ended the day by asking, “What good have I done today?”. He also took time at the beginning, middle, and end of each day for examining and reflecting on his work. One of the most prolific and accomplished people ever took the time to reflect, plan, and organize at least three times a day. 
This astounds me. 
I don’t know anyone who reflects this much. Honestly, no one. And I’m starting to think that’s a big part of the reason so few of us are feeling like we’re living lives at the perfect level of productivity and achievement we desire. We aren’t measuring success. We aren’t reviewing results or assessing the data. 
Every moment is a data point—and yet, none of us take time to track and reflect on those data points. Reviewing and goal setting are things people do at the very beginning and end of a year, and not so much in the bulk of the middle. The problem is we’re missing incredible opportunities to learn, iterate, and grow. 
So, even if you’ve got a perfect system and you know exactly what you want to achieve, none of it really matters if you’re not reviewing your successes, failures, triggers, and habits frequently.
The remedy for that is the very powerful and important weekly review. I do my weekly review every Sunday, late in the afternoon (before I get too tired). Leo Babauta wrote a few fantastic (and simple) articles on weekly reviews:
Those two links above give you a pretty good overview of how to conduct a weekly review. The basic steps for my personal weekly review are as follows:
  1. Find a one-hour time block you can commit to each week. Babauta suggests a Monday or Friday, but I think weekends work best. Less stressful.
  2. Plan to not miss a single weekly review. It’ll throw you off for the week ahead, and before you know it, your goals will be a hot mess. 
  3.  Fill out my weekly review form. Here’s the one I created for myself:


In case you have a hard time reading the categories above…


The lines in grey comprise the bulk of the weekly review. Most of them are self-explanatory, but I’ll get into how I use Wunderlist tomorrow, because it’s important (a to-do list manager, but I utilize mine very differently than a normal to-do list). 

The reflection questions are also great. They are a way for you to stop and soak in how the past week was for you—along with setting intentions for the week ahead. You can tailor this weekly review to work for you, but this is a comprehensive template for you to work off of if you need a place to start. 

The weekly review is one of my favorite times of the week. I haven’t been doing it for too long, but I’ve seen a huge difference in how I spend my time when I actually review what I’ve done and plan for what I want to accomplish in the week ahead. 

Happy weekly reviewing!

If You’re Not Succeeding at Accomplishing Your Goals, This is the #1 Reason Why.


Yesterday, we talked about how to plan and analyze the current way you spend your time. Once you know exactly what work and ongoing tasks you’re doing that generate the greatest return on investment (the 20% of work generating 80% of your results), it’s time to figure out how to do more of the stuff that’s making a difference through goal setting.

Goal-setting is a hotly and widely talked about topic. It sounds pretty straightforward: Figure out what you want to accomplish choose a specific goal, and then create some benchmarks so you can assess how you’re performing. Right?

Except that plan doesn’t work. How many times have you set a goal, and it just didn’t materialize? So, you’re sitting there wondering, “Is it me? Am I not smart enough? Motivated enough? Skilled enough? Do I need a bigger network? Do I need more money?” When you don’t hit your goals, you start to feel like it’s you that’s lacking something. 

And that’s because you are. 

But it’s not smarts, skills, or motivation you’re lacking. You’re lacking a roadmap. You’re lacking a list of extremely simple habits you can adopt every single day, one or two at a time, that will actually allow you to turn a dream into something real.

But more than any of that, you’re lacking authentic connection to what it is you really want to accomplish.

I can’t stand all the crappy advice out there. It’s like listening to a broken record on repeat. The same advice gets doled out over and over again:

  • Create a “big picture” of what you want to accomplish in life
  • Create a personal mission statement
  • Break down your big goals with smaller goals on a to-do list
  • Make sure your goal is specific
  • Make sure your goal is attainable
  • Give yourself a deadline
  • Make your goal public 
  • Ask someone to help keep you accountable

Maybe those are all useful components of goal-setting, but having tried all of them myself, I can tell you that no matter how smart, skilled, and motivated you are to achieve, this is not a comprehensive list—or even the right list—of what you need to do to achieve goals. 

I’m going to start in this post with the hardest part of goal setting. 

You need to have goals you’re truly connected to. Not things you kinda sorta want to do. Not things your parents or friends or bosses think you should do. Your goals need to be so close to your heart and spirit. People forget that “motivation” is not why people succeed. It’s not that successful people have more motivation than others. We all have incredibly lazy days. We’re human beings, not robots. 

The #1 reason people don’t accomplish their goals is because the goals are not tied close enough to that person’s sense of self—they don’t make someone think, “I was put on this planet to accomplish this goal.” If you don’t feel that connected to what you’re doing, you’re simply not going to thrive. Period. End of story. 

This applies to every single area of your life: relationships, work, hobbies, skills you want to acquire, health, etc. If you’re not super connected in the right ways to your goals, you may get by. You may even “do well.” But you’re not going to thrive. Thriving happens when you’re super-aligned with your personal purpose. You could make a mediocre relationship work. You could lose some weight. You could check off a bunch of to-dos at a job you don’t really enjoy. 

Why why? What’s the point in that? 

I can attribute every single goal I’ve accomplished or area I’ve thrived in to one simple reality: those things were all absolutely at the core of who I am and who I want to be.

Some of you may be reading this now thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s really easy for you to say that, Melissa. You’re single, and you don’t have kids, a car payment, or a mortgage to worry about. You can take risks that I can’t take.” 

Let me tell it to you straight: I think you’re lying to yourself. 

I still have my fair share of challenges—financial and otherwise—to work through. But honestly, what’s the point in being stuck there? Nothing good comes from telling yourself repeatedly about all of the things you can’t do. That’s a made up idea in your head. Plenty of people have found a way to thrive in various different areas of their lives even with kids, a spouse, a car payment, a mortgage, a lack of education, and a low-paying job. Trust me, you can find numerous people out there who worked through a more dire set of circumstances to accomplish huge, huge things. If they can do it, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t do it. 

We’ll do whatever we can to find an excuse, because that’s the easier thing to do. It takes a ton of hard work and reflection to decide what your goals are in the first place. We all want quick fixes. But here’s what happens: we rush to set a goal that doesn’t really matter to us, then scramble to try somehow to make it happen, and then we end up upset and demoralized when it doesn’t work out. 

Let me give you an example: dieting.

A lot of people diet. Some lose weight, most gain it back. Why does this happen? Obviously, it’s not for lack of information and diet plans, and psychological techniques out there. And it’s certainly not because of your circumstances. There are really wealthy people who want to get healthy and can afford a private chef, personal trainer, at-home gym, etc. And yet, that’s still not enough. And then there are others who have no resources at all and still bust their butts, get up every morning to run outside, and buy cheap produce and canned veggies. They make it work. 

If you notice, the people who lose weight and keep it off…there’s something different about them. And it’s that they are deeply connected to why they want to get healthy. If your sole motivation for getting healthy is losing weight so you can look good because you think that’s what it’s going to take to get people to fall in love with you, respect you at work, etc., you’re honestly probably going to fail. You’re going to fail because that “purpose” isn’t driven by your core internal desire for change; it’s driven by (1) doing something because that’s what friends, family, society expects, and (2) by a false belief about your self-worth. Your self-worth doesn’t come from your weight, and if you keep thinking that as you attempt to lose weight, even if you do, you’ll just be a thinner version of yourself left with nothing but the real problem that was lurking beneath your weight-gain: irrational and totally made-up self-esteem struggles. 

If, however, you decide you want to lose weight because you are in love with the feeling you get from going on a long run (no matter how hard it is in the middle of one), or you want to live a long and healthy life for your spouse and children, or you’ve learned that eating animal products and heavily processed food, no matter how delicious, is really bad for you and makes you feel nasty and you’re sick and tired of it (literally)…now we’re talking a totally different ballgame. 

Because now, you’re deeply connected to your reason for wanting to lose weight. When you have that connectedness, you elevate yourself above the normal stopping points for people (i.e. having unhealthy food in the house, being too tired to work out in the morning, not having a gym membership, etc.)

If you’re really connected, you’ll find a way.

You’ve literally got everything you need in that head and heart of yours to make your goals work.

So here’s the exercise I want to ask you to do today:

First, find a pocket of silence. Take one day this weekend to completely disconnect and just allow yourself the breathing room to think and reflect. 

Next, answer the question, “What do I feel like I was put on this planet to do?” Just freestyle write. Don’t worry about it making sense or being realistic. Just write everything down that comes to mind. What sorts of things have you always been drawn to? What are your most favorite activities? If you could do anything—no limitations—what would it be? What are your gifts? Strengths? Skills? What do you do better than everyone else you know? Write down absolutely everything that comes to mind. 

Finally, pretend this year was your last year. What one big thing would you want to accomplish? Just choose one thing. What’s the biggest thing you’d want to accomplish in the next year of your life? In 12 months, what would bring you utter joy to say you’d done? What would have made it a year worth living?

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to chase after that one big, amazing goal of yours. 

The Important Difference: Vision vs. Expectation

Vision is a laser clear sense of your end goal. Expectation is thinking you know exactly how you’ll achieve that end goal.

It’s so important to have a vision—the best possible vision—for your life.  But expectation? Expectation sucks. 

Expectation is the idea that you have to follow one specific blueprint in order to accomplish your dreams. When you believe there’s only one way, you: 1.) totally overwhelm yourself and 2.) cut off all potential (and likely better) possibilities and paths. 

Obviously, you need a general roadmap for your life—because if you don’t know where you want to go, you’re most likely not going to get there. But the balance is in fully connecting to the end goal and still remaining unattached to the route(s) you choose to get there.

People fall into three distinct traps when devising a roadmap for their lives:

1.) They don’t have a laser clear vision of the desired end goal in various different realms of their lives. 

2.) They have an end goal, but it’s misguided. It won’t bring them the satisfaction they’re imagining.

3.) They have a very clear vision of the end goal, but they also have a detailed expectation of how they’re going to achieve that goal. 

Many of us experience some mix of the three of these over the course of our lives. 

Here’s the simple solution set for the three problems above:

1.) Get clear on what your vision is for every corner of your life, and also be clear about why that’s what you want. 

2.) Create a broad-stroke life roadmap for the actions or specific habits you think will add up to you achieving your goal. 

3.) Run your roadmap by the 1-3 people you trust the most. Ask them to plug holes in it. Ask them to ask you hard questions about why everything you’ve written down is really what you want. This is an opportunity for you to refine and strengthen your list. The other benefit? Often, when we give ourselves the opportunity to sell others, what ends up happening is that we sell ourselves.

Sharing your goals and roadmaps with others will make it more real. It’s scary, but once you state what you want out loud (ideally, all the time, whenever someone gives you the space to share what you want most out of life), it becomes more real. The world begins to believe you’ll do those things. And more importantly, you’ll begin to believe you’ll do those things. 

4.) Every single chance you get, think of possibilities beyond the realm of the obvious. Ever catch yourself saying, “Well, I have to do X in order to get Y,” or, “A, B, and C need to happen before I can launch a company/write a book/find a job I’m more passionate about, etc.”?

The next time you hear yourself buying into a limiting belief about the way things need to be, I want you to find at least two other solutions of mini-roadmaps for making something happen without A, B, C, or X. 

At any given moment, for any given situation or problem, there are literally hundreds—if not thousands—of possibilities. 

So stop boxing yourself in. It’s literally absurd. 

The more you practice the art of coming up with new solutions, or changing your self-imposed limiting beliefs, the more new options or roadmaps will begin popping up. You’ll begin to see the amazing array of possibilities available to you every single day. All you’ve got to do is build up your muscle of recognizing them. 

That’s really it. It’s that simple. Don’t spend your time overcomplicating it. 

It’s your job to set the highest, grandest vision for your life. 

And it’s also your job to let go of the expectation you have about how your goals need to unravel their way into reality. 

Because here’s the thing: whatever you believe is what you become. If you weigh your vision down with a very limited and unrealistic expectation of how to make it come to life, that’s all you’ll get:

A limited belief, led by the limitations of expectation, which leads inevitably to a limited outcome. 

And you deserve a better outcome. 

So undo the lessons you’ve learned about how things need to happen so life has room to deliver the outcome you really want. 

Start now.