I like to-do lists. But they can be flawed. We apparently think they’re better than they are.

Nearly two-thirds of professionals use to-do lists, according to a LinkedIn survey. But only 11 percent of people who use them say they get everything on their lists done in a day.

What explains the gap between how we perceive to-do lists and how they perform?

Maybe unplanned phone calls, emails, meetings, and troubleshooting interrupted their day. But maybe there was also something wrong with the to-do list.

Here are three areas where to-do lists typically fall short.

They lack context. When you look at your list, can you tell visually which tasks are more important? Do you estimate how long each task will take? Writing a time estimate of how many minutes something could take will make it easy for you to knock off some quickies before jumping into tasks that take half an hour or more. Doing that will give your day momentum.
Can you move the items on your to-do list as their level of priority changes?

They are vague. And vague sounding tasks are easy to avoid, because it’s not clear what the steps are. Vagueness can lead to procrastination. The takeaway: Be more specific. So instead of “market online course,” you might write the smaller chunks that go into that. For example, draft sales page, write email for affiliate marketers, outsource work for FB and Twitter graphics, post event in FB groups.

They are too long. In fact, daily to-do lists are sometimes so long that they can be overwhelming. And that can be demoralizing and de-energizing.

I once worked with someone whose to-do lists filled one page of a yellow legal pad. I put my daily work to-do lists on one of those square yellow Post-It notes. His list was at least 25 things long. Mine was usually 3-5 tasks.

The takeaway here is that items on your daily list should be limited to a few top priorities. Otherwise, you may end up in the 89 percent who don’t get all of the things on their list done.

To-do lists can be more powerful tools than you thought—if you provide context, make them specific, and limit them to your most important priorities.

You may have thought the otter was dead. And you certainly could not be blamed for thinking that. The otter has been dormant for many months. But I want you to know that it’s waking up.