How to (finally) get your To Do list out of your head, organized, and done.

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I was speaking with a client today about their conference. In a couple of months I’ll be on their main stage and I was pressuring him to learn about the outcomes he wanted.

“Every day I have 17 projects that need my attention.” he said “If you can just help me get them out of my head, that would be great.”

He’s not alone.

Of the almost 500 people who completed my client survey this Spring, two of the most common barriers to success were overwhelm and chronic stress (watch for a future post about those survey results). Sound familiar?

I have a surprisingly simple solution. It’s a system I teach people in all my time management seminars and folks love it. I call it Plan Like A Pilot and it can remove any grief you might be experiencing from lists, overwhelm, and impending deadlines … I’ll get to that in just a minute. First, let’s get one thing straight.

Thinking about doing won’t get you closer to done.


There is a time to think, plan, and act to get a project rolling downhill to completion. The rest of the time, your projects need to be parked in a homethinking with the door closed and you need to stop thinking about them.

Worrying, fretting, strategizing, and NOT DOING burns you out and creates a negative feedback loop. Harvard Prof. and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert talks about our “psychological immune system” that is strengthened, or weakened, because of what we ruminate on. Think optimistically and you are healthier and more likely to forge forward overcoming resistance. Focus on what’s not working and you are more likely to balk at any sign of resistance.

Here’s my test for you. Answer these three questions and it should be pretty clear if you need help.

  1. Do you frequently worry you will forget to do something at work or a home?
  2. Have some papers, notes, files, stickies, or reminders been on your desk longer than a week?
  3. Do you have more than one list for keeping track of your plans and tasks?

If you answered “Yes” to any one these – read on because you are going to love what I’m about to share (if you answered “Yes” to all of these – stay after class.)

Eeyore, tells Pooh, “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” – A. A. Milne’s 

Now, onto the best damn system for parking your To Do’s (if I say so myself).


A good planning system has three features:

  1. everything is organized in one place,
  2. easy access,
  3. minimal time for upkeep.

That’s why I invented my Plan Like A Pilot (PLAP) planning system – it gives a home to all your plans and wishes, it’s all in one place, and it’s easy to maintain. Learn more about the PLAP system in my book Give Me a Break.

In this post I’m going to share the format I use for recording everything I am working on. It starts with recognizing all the types of data you have – there are (at least) five.


The Plan Like A Pilot (PLAP) Map gives you five places to park whatever is keeping your neurons flapping their little dendrites. Here they are:

1. LIFE PLAN – this is the scary stuff – life aspirations. About twice a year I crack open this thick novel, peel back the pages, and peer down theimages_key-2 paths my life is following. There are five of them (you might have more, but I’ve only got five fingers on my hand):

  1. marriage, children, family
  2. health and spirituality
  3. adventure and meaning
  4. business and career
  5. wealth and contribution

2. YEAR PLAN – these are the “Boulders” – the big stuff I want to happen that often rolls off the path and get stalled. I want them front and centre and challenging me. That list includes:

  • Net wealth from business and investments (see “Why $100,000 a year won’t make you rich“)
  • Family and personal adventures (camping, travel, competitions, retreats)
  • Personal challenge: hours I’m willing to work, habits I’m practicing, skills I’m learning (like singing)
  • Business: Sales and net income, client metrics (web site traffic, client list, keynotes, etc.), products and promotions, staffing, etc.

3. FLIGHT PLAN – this is a short list of what has to happen by Friday (watch my video about creating your Flight Plan, below). I like to keep this list to 12, or fewer items.

4. THIS MONTH – unsorted list of work for the current month. These are ignored until each Friday, when I review them and decide if they move to the Flight Plan (see my post “Friday 15 – my little secret to setting up a super week“).

5. SOMEDAY – ideas, random suggestions from colleagues, “great” ideas I hear on podcasts, and left-overs from previous months stay here. As with “This Month”, these are ignored until the Friday 15 review (see below).

Just like a pilot’s flight plan, once I have the big picture dialled in, I need to look at what happens immediately. A pilot has loading instructions and check lists, I have a Day Plan. The Day Plan is what I commit to today. And it’s driven by the Flight Plan. Download a copy of my PLAP planner.

Here’s how it works.


Every Friday I complete my “FRIDAY 15” routine – 15 minutes where I:

REVIEW the week – what worked, what didn’t, what discipline was lacking, what habits need a kick in the routine.

RETHINK my PLAP map – what needs to be upgraded from “This Month”, or “Someday” to the Flight Plan, what needs to be down-graded. What can I delegate? What can I do right now, or dump, or defer? My goal is for the Flight Plan to be realistic and accurate – I want to feel positive when I read it, not overwhelmed.

REVISE my Flight Plan and create a new Day Plan. 


I use a note pad for my Day Plan. By the end of the day it’s covered in scribbles and (hopefully) lots of tasks crossed off.


Once I have my PLAP map and my Day Plan, I update both at the end of every day (Monday – Thursday). The full review, rethink, revise cycle happens on Friday.

So, there you have it: a PLAP Map and a Day Plan. That’s my life, recorded in 1,500 words, or less (rather sad isn’t it?). 

And now a word about discipline.


A system is only as good as the operator (that’s you, dear reader). The Plan Like a Pilot system only works if you put your attention on the Flight Plan and keep your hands out of the TO DO jar.

In other words, follow a habit of putting every idea, task, “I wonder if…”, and “To Do” in one of the five rooms in your PLAP Map. No sickies, no multiple-synced-color-coded-I’m-so-clever calendars, leather-bound journals, or cool apps. Your goal should be to put everything in one place and become a master at effectively working on one thing at a time (now, there’s a concept!).

** Will this help? Tell me in the comments – I want to know! **