9 1/2 Secrets Successful People Use to Get the Most From Their Time, Life, and Career: Secret 7: Avoid To-Do List Frustration

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Avoid to-do list frustration and move to a system known as the holding pen and priority list. This is the best time management tip I know, springing from more than 40 years of experience with leaders in 160 Fortune 500 companies.

Why is the holding pen and priority list best?


  • It is easy to learn.
  • It’s simple to use.
  • It can produce results within minutes of starting to use it.
  • It takes only five minutes a day to use.
  • It can be used in personal and professional life.
  • You’ll immediately accomplish more with increased satisfaction and little or no stress.

To learn more about the differences between a to-do list and a holding pen and priority list, let’s follow the days of two imaginary people.
Mr. Todlif’s Day

Mr. Todlif has 30 items on his to-do list at the beginning of this day, as shown in the diagram to follow.

As Mr. Todlif works through the day, he looks at the entire list frequently.

Suppose there are six things on the list that he would like to complete today. Each time he looks at these six things he generates a little motivation to complete the six. But as the day goes on, he realizes that he can only complete three. Where does the energy and motivation to complete the other three go?

This good energy and motivation turns into frustration and stress because he can’t do everything on his list. Most days, Mr. Todlif realizes that he rarely completes what he really would like to finish during the day, making his stress chronic, which is a serious productivity and health problem.

When Mr. Todlif reviews his priorities at day’s end he sees that during the day he added four more items and accomplished only three. He now has 31 items on his to-do list. If you have ever come in early, skipped lunch, worked late, and at day’s end realized your to-do list is longer now than it was at the beginning of the day, you know what Todlif feel like. (Todlif is short for To-Do-List Frustration.)

Note: Both Mr. Todlif and Mr. Satisfied both did 1, 11, and 21. Mr. Todlif used a to-do list.

Mr. Satisfied took them out of his holding pen and put them on his priority list.

Both accomplished three things with vastly different results.

Mr. Satisfied and the Holding Pen

Mr. Satisfied converts his to-do list into a holding pen. A holding pen is a place where you write all the things you want to remember and possibly do—or sometimes, later forget. You don’t have to make a decision on that right now.

The holding pen has the following very important characteristics:

  • It is always immediately available, but out of sight.
  • As the name indicates, it is a holding pen—a deposit of things to do, not a list of instructions for your day.
  • Some people have a number of holding pens, for personal, business, or miscellaneous items.
  • You can also sort a holding pen by urgency: do this week, do this month, just hold, maybe never do.
  • B yusing several holding pens, you can immediately categorize items, saving future time.

How Mr. Satisfied Uses His Holding Pen

Mr. Satisfied reserves the first five minutes of the day to fill out his priorities for the day. He puts the same three things Mr. Todlif accomplished on his priority list. But here are some very significant differences:

  • He focuses only on what he can reasonably accomplish today.
  • He is not thinking of all the other things he would like to accomplish, but can’t. Stress is relieved.
  • The most important difference is at the day’s end. As Mr. Satisfied walks to his car, he checks his priority list. He says to himself, “I set and focused on just three items. I got three items done. Success again!”

Mr. Satisfied’s Double Win







As the above diagram illustrates, satisfaction does not equal accomplishment. Satisfaction is more like the ratio of accomplishment to expectations. Mr. Satisfied wins because he set on his priority list the important things that he could reasonably accomplish today. All day he can feel that he will get them done. At the end of the day he is successful. The double win is the low stress he experiences. He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish—a great feeling adding to Mr. Satisfied’s feeling of control over his time and life.

The Aha! of the Very Successful

The very successful don’t try to do everything. They are very successful because they focus on the important things. Most people can create more to do in an average day than can possibly be done.

Writing on your priority list only the important things you can accomplish today alleviates the feeling of, “Too much to do! I never get everything done!”

When you use the holding pen and priority list, you have less distraction from all the things you are not going to worry about today. As a result, you can focus your limited energy on the important things. My coaching alumni consistently tell me they accomplish more with less effort and more of the important things.

This simple five-minute habit of putting your priorities for today on a priority list that you keep in sight and the rest in the holding pen out of sight and out of mind has several positives:

  • Nothing is lost. You know where it is.
  • It is out of sight. You don’t generate motivation to do these things. No stress here.
  • With fewer things on your priority list, you consistently have the satisfaction of getting it all done.
  • When this happens day after day, you feel more satisfied in your use of time and life control.

To listen to a real Mr. Satisfied—a manager for Cisco, once a victim of todlif—who is now a very satisfied user of Aligned Thinking (the holding pen and priority list) go to:

About the Author
Jim Steffen founded SSA International in 1974. He wrote the international bestseller Aligned Thinking: Make Every Moment Count. He would be glad to offer you the opportunity to become a Certified Trainer/Coach, learn the Aligned Thinking Secrets, and teach it to your clients; the program is free if you are an ATD member. For details, visit or contact him at
1 Comment
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Interesting but there's no evidence provided that show that the "very successful" do this. That said, it may not increase my success but it can certainly increase my satisfaction that I've accomplished the important tasks in my to-do list. I worry when equate changing the name of something that this act somehow changes the thing (trans-substantiation). This is still a to-do list but with different chunking and labels.
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