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To-Do or Not To-Do

As a beginning school administrator, I thought I had everything figured out. Rather than commit to lifelong learning and implement “best practices,” I flew by the seat of my pants and trusted natural ability to guide my work.

Growing up, I had always relied on memory to keep track of tasks needing completion. And given that follow-through never seemed to be an issue, I didn't think a formal process for tracking daily commitments was necessary.

Quite often, I would see other administrators carry notebooks where to-do lists were kept. Upon seeing their lists, I would tell them, “Wow, that’s really cool. I need to do that!” while in my head I was thinking, “Wow, that’s really lame. I will never do that!”

As a stubborn new administrator, keeping a to-do list was the last thing I wanted to do (pun intended). To-do lists weren’t sexy or innovative; they reminded me of grocery shopping at HyVee with my mom as a child.

As an assistant principal, I got away with my memory-based system. Whereas occasionally I would forget to return a parent phone call, conference with a student, or send an important email … for the most part I was pretty dependable.

Everything changed when I became a head principal. Whereas previously I managed a group of 30 to 40 employees, I suddenly found myself the boss of 200-plus individuals.

Throughout the day, staff would approach me from all directions with various requests. Given my desire to be helpful, these conversations usually ended with me agreeing to help the employee. Whereas initially I managed to stay up-to-speed with my promises, over time commitments started falling through the cracks.

Upon realizing I had dropped the ball on a promise, employees would say, “Oh don’t worry - you have a lot going on.” Despite these kind words, I couldn’t help but detect their disappointment. Furthermore, I noticed these employees stopped coming to me for assistance.

My story is common in educational leadership: many administrators fail to follow through on commitments to staff in a timely manner. Even worse, many leaders forget their commitments all together.

And when this happens – rather than apologize to the employee and seek ways to improve - these leaders justify their actions by saying “I’m just so swamped right now”, "I have a lot on my plate” and – more recently – “We’re just so short-handed.”

Unfortunately, these leaders fail to understand the following leadership truth:

Few things kill trust faster than a boss who doesn't follow through.


At the start of the day, school leaders have mountains of tasks to complete. Meetings, observations, reports, phone calls, emails … the list is endless!

Unfortunately, administrators have a bad habit of arriving at the office, opening their laptop, and starting work without a clear list of priorities. When this happens, they spend their day haphazardly jumping from one task to the next without a clear sense of direction.

Enter the good old-fashioned to-do list.

Studies have shown that people perform better when they have systems for keeping track of commitments. To-do lists provide structure and organize priorities. Not only does having a trusted system for capturing thoughts reduce anxiety, crossing items off lists produces bursts of motivation and positivity.

Countless resources provide guidance on capturing commitments. Two of my favorites are the Getting Things Done method and the Bullet Journal method.

David Allen is recognized as one of the leading experts on personal and organizational productivity. In his book Getting Things Done, Allen suggests the following:

“Studies have demonstrated that our mental processes are hampered by the burden put on the mind to keep track of things we're committed to finish, without a trusted plan or system in place to handle them.... Every idea you have of something that needs to get done must be captured somewhere outside of your head.”

Ryder Carroll has garnered recent attention for The Bullet Journal Method. In his book with the same name, Carroll shares this advice:

“Holding on to thoughts (as opposed to writing them down) is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands: They easily slip from your grasp and disappear back into the muddy depths of your mind. Writing things down allows us to capture our thoughts and examine them in the light of day. Each item we write down begins to declutter our mind. We're creating a mental inventory of all the choices consuming our attention.”

Whether leaders explore one of these methods or develop their own process does not matter. What does matter is that leaders must stop relying on memory and develop a system for capturing commitments.


Looking to improve your follow through on commitments? Consider these six ideas:

Moleskin Notebooks: I always carry a small notebook so I can document my commitments and revisit my to-do list at any time. Writing down commitments in "real time" not only eliminates the possibility of the task being forgotten ... it also decreases the underlying anxiety caused by not remembering what needs to be done. Although they have a funny name, Moleskine Notebooks are among the most popular in the industry. I prefer the 5” x 8.25” version with the hard cover. I also love my Pilot G-2 07 pens.

Weekly Routine: Each Monday morning I spend a few minutes listing every professional and personal commitment on one page in my notebook. Incomplete tasks from the previous week get transferred, while new obligations from the weekend get added. Throughout the week, I add new duties the moment they come up. And when finished, I take pleasure in crossing off the task (more on this to come). The page serves as my weekly playbook.

Using a Moleskine notebook to capture commitments has been a game-changer.

Pictures Are Worth a Thousand Words: In 2012, I saw a student use her cell phone to take a picture of the whiteboard in a math classroom. The picture - which contained a number of formulas - would be used for the student's future reference. At the time I thought, “That’s weird … and not for me.” Now I have found that taking pictures is one of my most efficient strategies for remembering tasks needing my attention. Taking five seconds to snap a photo saves me precious time and allows me to revisit the picture whenever my mind needs a refresher.

Circle Back: Keeping promises not only builds trust with employees, it creates a culture of high expectations. With this in mind, I recommend that supervisors look for opportunities to inform staff when tasks have been completed … even when it feels like the communication may not be necessary. Letting them know when a task is complete – such as meeting with a student or calling back a parent - not only shows employees they are valued, it also sends a message to staff they are also expected to follow through on their own commitments.

Cross Off: Do get strange sense of excitement when crossing off your to-do list? It’s not just you, research shows that checking items off of a checklist makes us happier, less stressed, and more productive. Looking for another psychological advantage? During an especially “unproductive” day or week, flip through your notebook pages and notice how many obligations have already been done. Seeing hundreds of crossed-off items feels therapeutic and helps suppress pessimistic thoughts.

Increased Accountability: In addition to following through on their personal commitments, one of a leader's most important jobs is to ensure that employees follow through on their own commitments. To help keep my employees accountable, I create a Google Doc for each direct report. Within this shared document, I keep track of commitments that are made during our weekly 1:1 meetings (see page...). Without this system in place, it would be nearly impossible to hold double-digit direct reports accountable to their various commitments.


In Keep Going, Austin Kleon suggests the following:

“Whenever I need to figure out my life, I make my list. A list gets all your ideas out of your head and clears the mental space so you're actually able to do something about them. When I'm overwhelmed, I fall back on the old-fashioned to-do list. I make a big list of everything that needs to get done, I pick the most pressing thing to do, and I do it.”

Do you find it difficult to address your biggest priorities?

Do you find it challenging to hold employees accountable?

Do you find it hard to stay upright in the daily whirlwind?

Look no further than the good old-fashioned to-do list.


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Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.



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