These 2 little words make it easy to finish your to-do list in half the time

Have you ever had things that sit on your to-do list for days or even weeks?

Do you ever get stuck on a decluttering project and don’t know what to do?

I have a suggestion that will help you get unstuck and actually do those pesky tasks that you can’t seem to check off.

2 little words that help finish your to-do list fast

Here are the 2 words: Ask yourself, What’s the “next thing?”

Here’s how this works.

I might say that I need to declutter my garage.

I’m tempted to write “declutter the garage” on my list and leave it at that. But I actually need to find a place to donate items to in order to remove the clutter.

Otherwise, it just becomes another pile of clutter in the garage, right?

If I write “declutter garage” on my list I’ll get stuck because I’ll think, “Oh, I can’t do that right now (because I don’t know where I can take the items).”

And this item will stay on my list for days!

So my “next thing” is “clear space in car trunk” and then “get boxes for decluttered items”. THOSE are my 2 next steps, not the decluttering itself.

This simple hack will make planning and list-making so much easier! Tips like this will get you through your to do list in half the time, too, even if you don't know where to start.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Why does this little change in language matter so much?

You might think I’m being a little picky for writing an entire article about the words you use on your to-do list. But take a look at these examples and see which of these things makes it easier for you to take action:

Too unspecific A good “next thing”
Declutter the basement Pick shelf to declutter
Go grocery shopping Make menu and shopping list
Plan birthday party Make guest list and pick party date
Volunteer at school Check calendar for open dates to volunteer
Buy son new shoes Measure son’s shoe size

The second column seems much easier to do, doesn’t it?

Why does the “next thing” help you get “unstuck”?

First, “thinking” is easier than “doing.”

Do you agree? Mostly, anyway. When you ask yourself “what’s the next thing?”, you’re not requiring any physical action just yet. It’s easy! So you’re not stuck and you gain momentum.

Second, it’s much easier to act on your “next thing.”

When it’s time to act, you’re looking at a list item that you can actually do! If your task is not really the “next thing”, it’s going to rouse up all kinds of objections like:

  • I don’t know what to buy at the store…
  • I actually need to get some cash before I go shopping anyway…
  • I can’t begin to think how to plan that birthday party…
  • Do I really have time to volunteer?

So give yourself a task that you can do and it’s 100 times easier to take action.

This simple hack will make planning and list-making so much easier! Tips like this will get you through your to do list in half the time, too, even if you don't know where to start.

Photo by Pixabay

What if you’re still stuck?

If you look at your list and you’re STILL stuck, maybe you’re not quite at the next thing yet. Maybe instead of “make guest list” you need to write “ask child to pick 3 friends to invite.” Maybe instead of “make shopping list”, you need to write “check pantry (to see what we have left).”

This tip is similar to the little trick I use to keep my house cleaner. It’s not rocket science, but a little shift in thinking makes a BIG difference!

So the next time you feel stuck, just use these 2 magic words and see if it’s easier to get moving.

What’s something you’ve been stuck on lately? How can you rephrase it so it better reflects your “next thing?”


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38 thoughts on “These 2 little words make it easy to finish your to-do list in half the time”

      • I had a girlfriend that called this the ‘but first syndrome’. She would pick something that needed doing, and never get to it because there was always a ‘but first’ that would take her down a ‘rabbit trail’, which lead to another ‘but first’, and another, so that getting to the actual task often never happened.

        • This idea was presented by the guest Sara had on last Thursday (?). It seems like she’s claiming it as her own. I think she should give the other girl credit where credit is due. Plus Sara is saying that by saying ‘the next thing’ it is propelling you in the right direction to accomplish the task at hand. But first would also accomplish that, I believe.

          • Looking at the comments after reading Sarah’s article, I believe she has been talking about the ‘next thing’ for several years. Also ‘but first’ is a classic procrastination excuse. For eg: I need to clear the table, but first I have to put some washing in soak. It’s easier to do general daily tasks than tackle decluttering.

  1. This is my problem!! I have been meaning to get my daughter into kindergarten screening for about 6 months now! The problem is that I don’t want to dig her birth certificate out of the safe… wonderful suggestion! Thanks!

      • I did! I ended up writing a list with each individual thing I had to do for this one task – get the birth certificate, order immunization records, send Health Summary to doctor. And I did it all! FINALLY! It’s the best feeling to get a nagging task off my plate. 🙂

  2. OK…this makes sense! When I look at all the things neatly stacked atop the guest bed, I think I don’t know where to begin and shut the door and move on! So your suggestion would have me choose one pile of things to put away or for which to find “homes.” I can do that! Thank you, Sarah. You have a gift for breaking things down into manageable bites!

      • Great tips. I have been procrastinating on doing my Filing, which has become a mammoth pile!
        Now, I’m thinking about it differently and I think it is doable now as I am making it a bit at a time and it is so much easier that thinking about it as a whole day job! Thank you.

  3. My husband was complaining last night about how hard it is to “start a work project” and, I said “what’s next?” he looked at my kinda funny but, then I explained and he said, “Wow! That’s way easier to think about!” 🙂 Thanks Sarah!

  4. Hi Sarah, When I get stuck I take a page from a note pad with lines and make three columns. The headings are.. MUST SHOULD COULD
    The first column is for the things that absolutely MUST be done today like “do the washing”, vacuum”, “empty the bins”, “water the vegetable garden” etc.
    The second column is for the not as important things like “do some shopping tomorrow”, “do some exercise”, tidy the computer desk” etc.
    The third column is the one for the six monthly plan things like”clean out the laundry”, “clean out the garage”, “organise a new fence”, “organise my CD collection” etc.
    I find by putting a date on this sheet and crossing off the list as I go it gives me a sense of achievement that I’ve actually got something done..

  5. This is great. Next thing is a great way to break down a task into smaller and smaller pieces which is why this is successful. Ok, my next thing is to take my bowl and put it into the dishwasher, which should get me going on cleaning my kitchen. 🙂

  6. Oh wow! It’s almost like this was just for me! Are you sure you don’t have a hidden camera around my house somewhere? Haha!!
    Thank you SO much for this awesome idea! I usually make a list and it always seems so long – but breaking it down this way makes it seem so much easier and it requires so much less stress!
    I will be making if my list during the day today for tomorrow’s tasks & I definitely plan on using this method and tossing mine in the can!
    Thank you again for blessing me with your awesome idea!

  7. I know I read this a while ago (from you–I remember it clearly), and it has been crazy amazing in making a difference in how I make lists. Although I make a lot fewer lists than I used to (because I got sick of making them and never completing them, and I got crazy busy and off focus from having three beautiful and wonderful but INSANELY busy children rather close together), I do find that when I make them, I actually complete them because I know how to break down the tasks into the “what’s next.” Groundbreaking–really, really helpful and easy to implement. Love it! Thank you Sarah.
    Now if i can just get back into the habit of making those lists on a daily basis . . . .

    • I’m honestly not on commission, but I love Todoist for this. I’ve got so much accomplished in the past few weeks, probably because it suits my particular mindset – I’m an accountant, but terribly disorganised, mainly due to depression.

      Projects can easily be broken down into tiny steps, and it’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment.

  8. I’ve been using this tip in conjunction with Todoist (no link). When I returned to work after a fortnight off, I had over 1000 emails in my inbox.

    Previously, I’d have written something like “clear in box” and been totally overwhelmed, so instead I have two recurring daily tasks, “action 5 emails” and “delete 50 unnecessary emails”. Now that’s down to 15, because my inbox is down to 82 mails.

    And I’m totally addicted to Todoist!

  9. This article was very helpful! I actually stopped writing “to do” lists for years because they raised my level of anxiety so much. I now keep a Bullet Journal and I just finished writing your tip in it for asking myself what the next step is, rather than writing down something more generic. Writing down something like clean house is overwhelming. So many little bits to that, but only one check off. Thank you so much!

  10. To quote the marvellous Samuel Clemens:

    On getting ahead by Mark Twain. The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, then starting on the first one.

  11. This is exactly how I do my lists! Break up the task and put only one portion of it on your to do list! In no time that task will be done!

  12. This tip reminds me of a writing assignment in high school journalism– write about a task… I chose “Make a PB&J Sandwich “. Teacher read them aloud while someone performed the task! Amazing how small steps can be overlooked, “assuming you have a knife in hand-instead of “using (?) hand to grab knife from drawer…”. You get the idea. It was eye-opening to have a task done when a step is not added. Steps to a task make it also easier to teach kids and husbands how Mom likes to see the chores done! Breaking tasks into steps makes it to completion.

  13. I am finally getting motivated to organize my dresser, my armoire and my bedroom in general. My clothes are scattered between three closets and now following ideas of how to organize so I can find what I need when I need it, this is going to help me. I was awake at 3:00 this morning, couldn’t get back to sleep so I decided it was time to get the clothes on the hangers and put them where they belong. 20 to 30 minutes and it was done .I was back in bed rolled over and got the rest of my night sleep. Next thing/next step!!!

  14. This is so helpful to reframe those pesky chores that I have had on my To Do list that never get To Done! I have a camera card that I have wanted to upload to my computer for two weeks. If the computer chair was not cluttered with stuff, I could actually sit down and do it. The next thing will be to clear off the chair! Thank you!

    • I was thinking that too, to say ‘but first’… however I read a post further up that said you could have too many ‘but firsts’ that lead you down too many rabbit holes, leaving you no time or energy to do the actual task. That’s where I go wrong!

      The ‘but first’ would probably work OK if you are disciplined and had only one ‘but first’ which would be, I assume, ‘to create a space/system’ to get things out of your home/or into their ‘rightful home’ .

      It’s unbelievable the amount of energy (mental energy spent eg: procrastinating/thinking/analysing/dithering etc and the physical energy of moving items about etc) required to get rid or rehome each item. Imagine if we were detached from all our stuff and could just get on with clutter clearing. Life would be so much easier!

  15. Sarah,

    Bless you! I was always proud of myself for my list-making…,only to find that I was skipping multiple steps. My lists will, from now on, look more like an outline.

    I’m a great packer, and always do it with multiple lists….buy, wash, dry clean, pack…for each category. My cleaning lists will be more like outlines.

    I can’t thank you enough.


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Welcome. I’m Sarah!


I’m the creator of Decluttering School (formerly known as Early Bird Mom), lover of organized spaces, encourager to women and mom to four boys. Click here to read more!

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