The Word That's Sabotaging Your Todo List

Everyday, countless people start things off by preparing a todo-list - the things they’d like to get done that day.

Some people have a constant, never-ending todo-list they can’t imagine ever clearing through. I’ve been there.

It’s not even that rare for a todo-list to feel more like a to-avoid-list. “Hey Nicky, here’s a list of all the things you have to do but don’t want to."

How does a simple list of things that would move us forward become something we fight so much against?


One of the most impactful books I’ve ever read is The Now Habit by Neil Fiore.

Amongst many other things, it made me realize I was using a single word in my todo-list that totally put the brakes on my progress, making me want to avoid the work in front of me rather than take it on and move forward.

The word?

Finish.

It’s extremely common for us to think of the tasks ahead as “things we need to finish.”

  • Finish new proposal for the team
  • Finish 3rd chapter of my book
  • Finish my new sales page
  • Finish designs for new website

Even if we don’t write ‘finish', we’re probably thinking it. Most of us have the habit of framing everything we need to do in terms of finishing.

It’s overwhelming and drives us away from the things we want to do.


The problem with framing a task in terms of finishing is that it is ambiguous.

When you’re thinking about your to-dos in terms of finishing, it’s not clear how to start. It’s not clear what you’ll need in order to finish.

It’s often not even clear if finishing is possible, which can create a bigger problem:

You can work your ass off all day, not finish and be a failure according to your todo-list, even if you made great progress. Why would you subject yourself to that?

A New Word: Start

We can flip all of this on it’s head by defining success as starting. Realize that finishing anything is just the by-product of repeated starting.

Focusing on starting allows you to clarify what's right in front of you and it means you can feel the value of every bit of effort you put in, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

As you’re preparing your next todo list and you hear yourself saying, “I really have to finish my new sales page” replace that thought with, “How can I start my new sales page?” ("How can I start..." is a line right from the Now Habit.)

You’ll notice that as you’re thinking about finishing, you have that familiar feeling of wanting to avoid the task you’re thinking of. But, when you ask for ways to start things seem to open up - you may even get excited as different possibilities present themselves.

Then, translate the options that come up directly to your todo-list.

Here’s the whole process:

  1. “I really have to finish chapter 3 of my new cat-grooming boo... ah no, not finishing...”
  2. How can I start chapter 3 of my new book? Hmm… Let’s see... I could just start writing, but I'm not sure where to begin. Maybe I can start by just outlining my basic process and go from there.”
  3. Add to list: Start chapter 3 by outlining my cat-grooming process then expand on each point

Compare "Finish chapter 3 on cat-grooming" with "Start chapter 3 by outlining cat-grooming process then expand on each point". Which makes you want to get working?

The second todo actually pulls you in because you approached it by asking how you can start instead of just insisting that you finish.

Once you get started, the next steps generally follow without effort and overtime, after repeated starts, finishing comes on it's own.


Next time you feel stuck on your todo-list take a second look at it.

Did you write the items there thinking about what you need to finish or what you can get started on?

What would happen if you rewrote every item asking, "How can I start?"


Sign-up for email updates

Submit your email address below and you'll never miss a new article.