To-Do lists, live frogs and the Pareto Principle

How often do you slay your To-Do list?

For many of us, our To Do lists are endless lists of items that we have no chance completing in a day (or even a week or month). But what on the list is essential? Greg McKweon, author of the book Essentialism, says we need to pursue less. The pursuit of less allows us to develop greater depth in our work and balance in our lives. He lives by the motto ‘less but better’. By shifting our focus from a breadth of tasks, he implores us to cull that list and work on tasks in depth.

So how does one do that?

The first step is to pull apart your To-Do list. As a filtering exercise, start by categorising all tasks into two categories; ‘Heck yeah’ and ‘Hell no’. Do this before the tasks even make it on the list. This is designed to highlight the tasks that you are inspired by and those that you aren’t. McKweon believes you should apply this filter to every opportunity that is presented to you. If it is not a ‘heck yeah’, then you don’t do it. Be really honest with this step.

Now for most of us, our ‘Hell no’ list will be made up tasks that we can’t get by without doing. The second step is to look at the ‘Hell no’ list and apply the second filter, ‘Will I get fired if I don’t do this?’ This filter is designed to ensure that you complete the major requirements of your role and to highlight the filler on your To-Do list. Create a new category called “Have-To-Do” and drag these jobs from the “Hell No’ list across. To-Do lists are designed to help us with productivity but bulging lists serve only to raise anxiety and stress and both are not conducive to getting things done. What we are trying to achieve is increased depth and value and this is done by understanding where your value comes from. This is where an Italian economist come in to play.

Pareto Principle

Tim Ferris, the author of the Four Hour Work Week, was able to work a four hour week by using a few guiding principles. The Pareto Principle was one he used to highlight where he had the most impact. Developed by Italian economist, Vilfreddo Pareto in 1909, the Pareto Principle states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In terms of your work productivity, 80% of your value comes from 20% of your tasks. While this is not a hard and fast rule, what it highlights is that most things in life are not evenly distributed. What this means for your to-do list is that most of your true value comes from a small number of tasks. The key is knowing what these tasks are and doubling down on them.

Look through the tasks on your list. Count them up and work out what 20% looks like. For the purpose of this post, let’s say that number is 5. Look through your list and asterix the five tasks that you believe capture your greatest value. Notice which list these tasks fall on as this is key.

Why do all this?

A To-Do list is meant to be an aid, not an enemy. So often we are slaves to our lists and it flys in the face of our own personal productivity and happiness. There are only a finite amount of minutes in our day so use them wisely, i.e. by bringing increased value and happiness. Culling the list to only the essential tasks helps breed optimism that you may actually get through the tasks. The next step is to take the reins and work the list to your advantage.


Batching tasks has been a revelation for me. Batch email, batch organisation, batch purchasing, you name it and I am trying to batch it. Batching allows me to get into a work groove to get through “have to” tasks and this helps create more space for creative or collaborative tasks that require more runway and space to grow. Set times to do tasks such as checking email and dedicate that block of time and headspace to being in email mode. Once the time is up, get up and have a short break. Take a walk or grab a coffee. Whatever you do, close your email client and get out of the grip of email. Responding to emails as they come in creates a really reactionary environment and this really swallows your time and your positivity.


MIT stands for Most Important Tasks. At the end of each day, write down the top three tasks to complete that will tomorrow a really successful day. This allows you to know where to start your day tomorrow. It helps put a close to the work day because you have highlighted what you will aim to achieve the next day. The key element is to work on these tasks first, especially your live frog tasks.

Live Frogs

Mark Twain suggests the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog (metaphorically). With the worst thing out of the way first, you can get on with your day with a positive mindset. What is your ‘live frog’ task? Knock this over first thing in the morning. Remember that owning the morning is key to framing your day. Starting on your terms and being present helps you feel in control.

Make your To-Do list your ally, not a personal reminder of the things you haven’t done. Do less but better by finding out where your real value comes from. Close each day by taking control and setting the scene for tomorrow. Eat the live frog task first thing and feel the weight lifted off your shoulders. Spend your day in proactive control instead of reactive panic. Be present.

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