10 Ways Happy People Prioritize Their To-Do Lists

10 Ways Happy People Prioritize Their To-Do Lists

“What can I start doing today to make my life happier and more fulfilling?”

This is one of the most common questions readers ask us via email, blog comments, and social media.  So today I want to share some simple, actionable ways to improve your happiness and wellbeing on a daily basis.

In the seven years of this blog’s existence, Angel and I have had the pleasure of meeting, coaching and interacting with hundreds of truly inspiring, happy, prolific people.  And the more we have interacted with people like this, the more we realize the similarities in how they prioritize their lives, and how their priorities align with our own.

What becomes evident is that, to sustain happiness, we must focus our attention on the right things, in the right ways.  Every growing human being (that means all of us) has resource constraints: limited time and energy.  It is critical that we spend our resources effectively.

Here are 10 ways to prioritize your life and your to-do lists for increased happiness and fulfillment:

1.  One thing at a time, with full presence.

In other words, make the thing you have chosen to do the number one priority while you’re doing it.  Focus with your full attention.  See the value in where you are, while you’re there.  Enjoy what’s happening, while it’s happening.

In the end, you will come to realize that the best days are the days when you don’t need anything extreme or special to happen to make you smile.  You simply appreciate the moments and feel gratitude, seeking nothing else, nothing more.  That is what true happiness is all about.

2.  Family and close friends are at the top.

Nurture your important relationships in such a way that when you tell the people you care about that you care about them, you’re simply reinforcing what they already know based on how you have prioritized them into your life.

Give them your full attention.  Let them see their own beauty in your eyes.  Let them find their own voice through your listening ears.  Help them discover their own greatness in your presence.

Make the people you love a top priority, always.

3.  Focus on importance, not urgency.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

Truthfully, the most important thing in life is knowing what the most important things in life are, and prioritizing them accordingly.  Sadly, most of us spend too much time on urgent things and not enough time on important things.

So do yourself a favor and implement these three action steps every time you’re building or sorting your to-do list:

  1. Think about the difference between what is urgent and what is important.
  2. Review all the obligations on your list.
  3. Do what’s important first.

Sometimes everything on your list will look important, which might be true to an extent.  But as you practice prioritizing, you will get better and better at it.  And eventually you will know, without question, when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones, like spending quality time with loved ones.  (Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

4.  Keep your efforts aligned with your purpose.

Getting anything worthwhile done is a matter of connecting with why you have chosen to do this thing in the first place.

Don’t allow others to confuse you.  Don’t let them convince your heart what is right for you.  Your heart already knows.  Listen to it.  Don’t let anyone else dilute the power of your inner voice.  You’ve got to stand up for something specific, on your own two legs, or you will achieve nothing worthwhile in your own mind’s eye.

Within you there is a formidable and undeniable sense of purpose.  Happiness comes from making a solid and persistent connection to that purpose.  When your intentions are supported by a “why” that has meaning, you will find the “how” to bring them to life.

5.  Play to your strengths and delegate when it makes sense.

When it comes to tackling big projects, you can try to do everything yourself, or you can reach out and find the right people to help you.  The first choice will raise your stress and blood pressure; the second choice will raise your consciousness and effectiveness.

Choosing the right perspective is so important; you CAN see life’s challenges as opportunities.  When an unexpected obstacle is suddenly standing in your way, don’t get overwhelmed.  Take a breather and regroup.  Someone else nearby knows how to get around it.  Find and engage them.

For example, if your website is suddenly having glitches with a new web browser, don’t read a giant book on web design.  Hire a professional web designer.  See the problem as an opportunity to delegate.  Life is trying to teach you that most long-term, worthy endeavors are team efforts, and so much more palatable when shared with others.  Every unexpected obstacle in life is a lesson on teamwork in disguise, solvable with the right team of people.

6.  Socialize and share with peers.

Regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s always easier if you have a group of people who understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what challenges you’re facing.  Staying in touch with these people and sharing ideas with them will accelerate your effectiveness and happiness.  Best selling author, Seth Godin, refers to these people as your tribe members.

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another via an idea, movement or common goal.  For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another.  Godin says, “A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

Every single one of us craves the feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves.  By nature, we are tribal, but oftentimes we become disconnected from our tribe.  We know our people are out there – somewhere – but we feel lost and disconnected from them.  If you’re feeling disconnected, open up to your peers and initiate a conversation.  Tap into your tribe.

7.  Give what you can, as you seek what you desire.

In many ways, life is a circle – what you put in to it comes back around.  When you make a positive impact in the world, the world will have a positive impact on you.

If you want to be rich, be generous.  If you want to make friends, be friendly.  If you want to be heard, listen.  If you want to be understood by others, take the time to truly understand them.  If you want to live an interesting life, be interested in the happenings around you.

You won’t always get back exactly what you wanted or expected, but when you give what you can you almost always receive what you need.  (Read The Secret.)

8.  Leave the past behind as you plan ahead.

Let old problems remain where they belong – in the past.  No matter how many times you revisit the past, there’s nothing new to see.  Don’t let what once happened get in the way of what is happening.  Just because you’ve made mistakes doesn’t mean your mistakes get to make you.  If something important didn’t work yesterday, figure out what changes can be made today.

Tame your inner critic; let go and move on productively.  You must make a conscious effort to do this, it won’t happen automatically.  You will have to rise up and say, “I don’t care how hard this is.  I don’t care how disappointed I am.  I’m not going to let yesterday’s problems get the best of me.  I’m taking the lessons and moving on with my life.”

9.  Commit to self-respect, regardless of the issue at hand.

Whenever you catch yourself in a rambling bout of negative self-talk, stop and ask yourself, “If I had a friend who spoke to me in the same way that I sometimes speak to myself, how long would I allow this person to be my friend?”

Remember, the way you treat yourself sets the standard for others, and the world at large, to follow.  Above everyone else, YOU deserve YOUR respect.  So make sure your decisions, behaviors and actions reflect your self-respect as you carry out your plans.  (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)

10.  Leave room to breathe.

Things don’t always go as planned.  Good things can’t always be planned.  Be flexible and open to life’s twists and turns.

Organize, but don’t agonize.  Keep your space and time ordered, but your schedule underbooked.  Create a foundation with a soft place to land, a wide margin of error, and room to think and breathe…

Freeing yourself from an overbooked schedule lets you experience more of life’s good surprises, and also provides you with flexibility when the unforeseen disrupts your foresight.


So, in summary…

Focus on your priorities, but take things in stride.  Make decisions, not excuses.  Live one moment at a time.  Count your blessings, not your troubles.  Let the wrong things go.  Look for lessons in unforeseen obstacles.  Ask for help.  Give as much as you take.  Make time for those who matter.  Laugh when you can.  Cry when you need to.  And always stay true to your values.

Your turn…

Which of the ten points above do you need to work on?

What other happiness tips are on your to-do list?

We would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights with the community.

Photo by: Paul Hocksenar


  1. Dev says

    Great post! I simply need to work on the whole ‘taking action’ part of the equation. I know what I want and need; it’s just a matter of DOING it.

    Or as Williams James said, “Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

  2. says

    As usual, insightful post. Number 3, “Focus on importance, not urgency” is a big one for me. It’s so easy for me to get caught in other peoples’ sense of urgency and forget what really matters. I’m getting better though – slowly.

  3. says

    Can’t stress #3 enough. I know so many people who are always busy – but busy doesn’t equal productive. Prioritizing what’s truly important will help in any business or any life decision.

    #7 as well. Just finished ‘The Secret’ and fully believe what you put out to the Universe you get back in return.

    The other 8 are solid thought too, hah.

  4. says

    So much wisdom here – more than a to-do list, this is a list to live by.

    I try to focus on #4 and #8. When I’m not serving my purpose, I do things that I shouldn’t be doing and don’t find fulfillment in it. Happiness indeed is about following your purpose. I worked in careers that were not in line with my purpose and I was not happy. Now that I have made a career change that is inline with my passion, I have passion, fulfillment and success in my life again. It was hard to do and came at a significant personal cost and salary reduction, but it was still worth it to me.

    And without question, if we can’t resolve our past, we can’t move forward with the present. I’ve found that to leave the problem in the past, I’ve had to come to terms with it and resolve it in my mind in some way. If not, the past would continue to linger in my life and hold me back, like it once did.

  5. says

    Great list, Marc!

    I’d add what Stephen Covey referred to as “Sharpen the Saw”, which means taking the time to preserve and enhance your greatest asset – yourself.

    Making time for these 4 areas of your life creates growth, positive change and keeps your saw sharp:
    1. Physical (healthy diet, exercise & proper rest)
    2. Mental (learning, reading, writing & teaching)
    3. Social/Emotional (making meaningful connections with others)
    4. Spiritual (spending time in nature, meditation, art, music, prayer or service)

  6. says

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Reading through this list, I can see that I need to work on all of the above. I know I am making progress in my life because before if I had read this list I would have felt overwhelmed and disappointed with my life, now I feel hopeful. I realize it’s not about speeding up and getting it all done but slowing down and finding the path that is right for me. Thanks for offering guidance along the way.

  7. Lynda says

    Procrastination is a big one for me which ends up creating urgency and the subsequent vicious cycle.

    Leaving room in my schedule… when I do this, what a huge relief. I didn’t realize how busy I was keeping myself until I had time to stop and just breath.

    Thank you for your wonderful posts. I read them all and find value in them.

  8. says

    One thing at a time with full presence. So easy to say and so challenging to do. All wonderful acts and experiences are those of deep singular focus. Practising mindfulness strategies will help, but at the end of the day, it is just something you have to commit and continually re-commit too. Thanks :)

  9. Patti says

    #6 The tribe. I need to revamp my tribe – moving into what I am and where I want to go instead of staying with who knew me “back in the day” and shared the experiences and circumstances that aren’t serving me anymore.

    I consider myself a writer and a budding artist. I’m seeking the company of such persons and groups. I’m working on shedding my casino worker/party animal image – and letting go of the real estate broker “I want to be somebody in the office” profile to simply just be the authentic me. I guess the first thing needing to be done is getting comfortable in my own skin so that I may reach out to others for support and guidance.

  10. F.R. says

    #9 speaks volumes: “If I had a friend who spoke to me in the same way that I sometimes speak to myself, how long would I allow this person to be my friend?”

    I never really thought of it that way. I will have to work on this aspect of my life in a big way. I know that I am my own worst enemy. This is thee biggest thing keeping be from great things. Thanks.

  11. Jennifer says

    Ordering a few books mentioned here…already own a few that I need to dust off and read again. Personally, the tribe comment means more to me…hadn’t thought of it in that particular light. Most of the excuses I’ve had about drawing close to a group have been because I left a cult about 12 years ago and the anxiety of getting “sucked in” to another unyielding set of rules frightens me. Hadn’t considered that tribal mentality…needing that. I’m sure it resonated as I do miss the basic need of social interaction with like minded supportive people..much to think about again. Thanks

  12. says

    Thank you for sharing this interesting perspective to ‘doing’ for happiness. Ultimately I have found that Happiness is indeed a conscious choice that one makes, and with this choice, all actions to support it will follow. The ‘how’ of some of it is embedded in much of your to-do list, which is great.

    The most powerful ‘tool’ I have found so far in achieving a happier life is in practicing gratitude and saying a heartfelt meaningful thanks as often as possible throughout the day. Magic seems to happen then 😉

  13. says

    I could work on, “Focus on importance, not urgency.” Lately, everything on my schedule seems to be urgent. :) I could also work on, “Leave room to breathe.” Sometimes, I feel like the Energizer Bunny. I keep going and going and going. It’s time for me to slow down, breathe, and focus on one thing at a time.

  14. David Rapp says

    Great listing here. The only thing I could think of is that Happy People fight to not change their priorities. They resist when people try to delegate urgent matters to them. They do not own someone else’s issues or problems. They are still Happy while saying No.

  15. Mary Ann says

    How timely this is for me! I’ve a handicapped husband due to cancer and all the awful side effects, and I’ve lost myself in his care and trying to do everything else (working, maintenance, etc.). When I get to the end of a day, I feel totally frustrated that, even though I’ve been moving for 12 solid hours, I feel that I accomplished absolutely nothing. Yesterday I had a conversation with someone about the need to regroup and make the important things the top priorities, not the urgent things, and this puts it onto a manageable sequence for me to get back on track and enable me to enjoy the time left with my husband, rather than resent it. As always, great uplifting advice when needed. Thank you!

  16. Mike says

    Thanks for this article. The timing was fitting considering yesterday I was reprimanded for procrastination. #9 is resonating with me this morning, and I’m printing this out to remind myself. Thanks again.

  17. says

    Number 9, Self Talk, is the biggest source of shame for so many of us. You’re so right…would you keep a friend who talks to you that way? Absolutely not! As a parent, I think it’s also important to look at how we talk to our children. I often hear parents disciplining their children in public in a way that shames them. It sets them up for a lifetime of hurtful self talk.

  18. says

    This list embodies the concept of Living according to your own personal Values and Priorities. Most people get so caught up in doing what they think is expected of them and ‘keeping up with the Jones’ that they forget or fail to figure out what is really important to them in their own lives. Great reminders and succinctly presented. Thanks!

  19. says

    “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” This is a lightbulb moment for me. I’ve been doing the exact opposite for so long.

    I’m also struggling with #8, but I’ve been meditating on it. I’m working on releasing the past’s grip on me so I can move forward. It doesn’t mean I have to forget it and pretend it never happened, which breaks my heart and perpetuates the grieving process. It just means it won’t have any effect on my future from here on out. I acknowledge it and take note of the lessons learned. It happened. And I’m going to focus on the good that came from it and how happy it made me for so long as I move forward to whatever the next thing is.

    Great list. Thanks!

  20. says

    Just one remark: Many people have become rich without being generous. The publicity the billionaires get by giving annually 0.1% of their property to charity may fool to think otherwise. :-)

    Personally I’m always pro generosity.

  21. says

    YES!!! This is great- SO valuable. Learning to prioritize early on in my business/life made all the difference. I’ve been reflecting on 3 key essentials of prioritizing, for an upcoming free teleseminar. Number one I think is *taking the time to reflect* (and plan.) How else to know what’s essential? How else will we lead from OUR heart/ core commitments? Here, important trumps urgent, always. Also key is discovering and keeping high on our list *whatever it is* that makes sure we implement our intentions. Accountability can be built in so we DO make it happen. Keep it simple. Commit to one to three key actions everyday. Thanks for the great post!

  22. says

    I can be very bad a prioritizing friends and family, and I’m not exactly sure how to change that… while still having time to pursue my goals and work a job. There’s weekends but not much else… and I’m a bit of an introvert to top it off.

    I’ve always had a tendency to try to do everything by myself, so I know first hand how ineffective that can be. When delegation is possible, I urge you to delegate… even if it involves hiring expert help like mentioned in the example! Trying to become an expert at everything will only result in mediocrity spread across a wide specter of areas. And with today’s competition, mediocrity is anything but useful.

    I’m also bad at letting go of the past, but keeping myself busy seems to help a great deal. My inner critic is pretty stubborn and very outspoken, but if he has no opportunity to jump in, all is well.

    The only thing I would add is knowing when to give up. Sometimes you are stuck on a path leading to a dead-end. Like a relationship in it’s death throes or a destructive friend always managing to drag you down with her/him. While giving up too soon can be a mistake, clutching to the idea that everything will work out for too long can be devastating.

  23. says

    Great post! The only thing I would add is to LOVE. A person, a dog, a cat or any other living thing. It makes us better, help us be patient and understanding and enlarges our hearts (in a good way)

  24. says

    I keep nodding at the points mentioned. Nodding but also nudging myself to keep them in mind. I have my to-do lists but sometimes forget to prioritize or to have breathers in between that instead of feeling accomplished after, I feel drained and stressed.

  25. says

    Thanks for sharing this article, it was such a great inspiration for me today. I especially like the part about not living in the past, but to take it one step further, I would suggest not obsessing over the future as well. I find this can be as destructive as being stuck in the past.

  26. Stephanie says

    Been away too long from your site & so glad I checked back in. Thank you as always for providing great advice & inspiration! I’m so glad you decided on a paperback run of the eBook, you can count me in; they’ll also make great gifts!

  27. says

    Mary Ann, I’ve been in your shoes. Being together and grabbing what happiness you can are vital. They’ll be what holds you together for the longest time. If you’re able, accept every bit of help available through social services & carer support groups. They saved my sanity, possibly my life. Pride doesn’t count for anything at these times. Killed me to let someone else do basic housework, but I gritted teeth and let it give me a little more time with my husband. Blessings to you and your husband.

  28. Connie says

    Nicely done!

    It was my son’s birthday yesterday, I took him to dinner and ended up talking about Marc and Angel. He thanked me for introducing him to your site and said it really helped him and that even when he receives an email and doesn’t feel like reading it, he does and feels better, more inspirational. He mentioned it’s not sappy, but realistic and is why he enjoys reading. I thought was great and it made me smile.

    Number 8 & 9 hold true for me, I’m still working on 8 I’m a work in progress 😀

  29. says

    Love these practical insights! Especially #3, focusing on what’s a higher priority not urgent. So much time is spent on putting out fires, being reactive instead of PROactive, and that can really be a huge time waster.

    And of course, keeping family at the top of that list of to dos aligns with personal goals. That’s a great reminder to us all.

  30. Allen says

    Hey Marc, ironically I started reading your posts to kill time awhile back, but now it has become a hobby – more like a positive part of my daily routine. I’m always eagerly waiting for your next post…and also could you write something on weird thoughts that drive us crazy and make us feel like we are in pit.

    Thanks. And keep up the good work.

  31. says

    I’m ready to launch my own consulting practice and I’m going to start with #1 focus on one thing with full presence. This is important with work and time with the kids. Stop multi tasking, get one thing done and off the list, then move on to the next.

  32. Charlene says

    I love, LOVE all your ideas and need to work on all ten! It is so nice to find out that these issues belong to others too and that I am not alone. Gives me a new energized hope for practicing these these ideas and making positive changes in my life. Thanks!

  33. says

    Great list! I can see there are at least a few items on that list that I need to work on, especially 3, 8, and 9. As some people have said above, forgiveness is also an important tip as it allows people to let go of negative feelings and move on.

  34. says

    I don’t think there is one way more important than another. Each of them has its own significance and in order to prioritize our lists we need to combine all these techniques. Thank you!

  35. says

    @Vishnu: Your last point is something so many of us struggle with. Accepting the past and letting it go is the only way to fully appreciate the present. It’s a process, but it’s worth it.

    @Patrik Edblad: Thank you for reminding me of Covey’s “sharpen your saw” metaphor. And yes, those four points are spot on.

    @Missy: Forgiveness is a great addition. Thanks.

    @Lynda: I’m a busy body too. Leaving margins between activities is something I have learned to do gradually over the years.

    @Patti: You got it. Once you believe in your heart that you are a writer, you are. And connecting and collaborating with likeminded people is a great way to remind yourself that it’s perfectly OK to be who you are (even if some people don’t agree with your choices).

    @F.R.: Glad to hear that question struck a chord with you. Good luck.

    @Li-ling: Agreed. Practicing gratitude is essential to living joyfully.

    @David Rapp: Excellent point, as always.

    @Mary Ann: Stay strong. I’m honored to hear that our insights help you through tough times. Keep your priorities aligned with your daily actions, and don’t forget to leave time for yourself.

    @Sandy Peckinpah: Excellent point. Parents have the ability to instill positivity and self-confidence or negativity and shame into their children at an early age. The first decade of a child’s life shapes a great deal of their disposition going forward. It all depends on how they are treated.

    @Jacqueline Ross: Spot on!

    @Melissa Webster: Yep. You got it. Focus on the good. Take the lessons and forgive the past – release it’s grip on your focus.

    @Ragnar: It’s sounds like you need to reassess where you focus your efforts. Think about the difference between productivity and busyness. Figure out where you can shave some busyness and redirect this time towards the people who matter most to you. It’s not always easy, but it’s always possible to tighten up your time management. Best of luck to you.

    @Craig: Of course. :) Love it as always a necessity.

    @ Tina Williamson: True. Presence in the current moment is essential. And yes, this includes not worrying too much about the future. I try to plan, but not obsess.

    @Stephanie: THANK YOU. We’re so glad you checked back in with us. Also, we received your five-book order and we’ll be shipping those out to you tomorrow. :)

    @Valerie Parv: Excellent insight for Mary Ann. Thank you for sharing.

    @Connie: Thank you so much for letting us know. It’s honestly so nice to hear that you and your son both enjoy our writing. We try to keep most of our content relevant to a people of all ages, in all walks of life. So your story makes me feel like we’re doing a pretty good job in that regard.

    @Allen: Thanks for the kind words. We’ll certain put your request in our idea file for future reference.

    @Dwayne Richards: Go get em’! Good luck on the new venture.

    @All: As always, thanks so much for the added insight and inspiration. We appreciate every comment you leave for us. Have a good one.

  36. says

    Love this list-especially keeping people as your priorities and learning to keep breathing room. (I’ve realized how much time I spend on things that simply don’t matter!) I just shared with my readers as well on a post about the power of focusing. Thanks!

  37. Gordon says

    I love this list. I must confess that I struggle and have always struggled with number 3. Urgent things, by very definition, are those things which CAN’T wait, are they not? Because of this, the suggestion to prioritize “important” things over “urgent” things ultimately results in the decision to not do the urgent things at all.

    I find that “urgent” things are normally things in the category of “basic survival and maintenance”, while “important” things are normally in the category of “important for long-term success, improvement, and happiness”.

    While it seems right to advise people to focus on the latter, you really can’t have the latter without the former, can you? So I must admit I can’t really understand how it’s possible to prioritize the “important” over the “urgent”. Maybe I’m missing something.


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