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On one hand, the humble to-do list can make us feel like productive overachievers. On the other hand, its unfinished items can taunt and torment us, reducing us to miserable failures who’ve achieved nothing.

Today’s fevered modern to-do lists are filled with everything from ‘try yoga’, to ‘remember birthday card’ and ‘finish work presentation’. And the more we obsessively tick our way through life, the more we forget to fully experience it.

A good-to-do list isn’t one big list of obligations. It’s a daily practice that can elicit flow, bring us into alignment, and enable us to be more mindful. And to understand how this is possible when making a to-do list, we first need to look at what the difference between a goal and a to-do list is (and ultimately why we need both).

What is the difference between a goal and a to-do list?

Let’s summarise the difference between a goal and a to-do list with these three key points.

#1 Your goal is your why – the do to list is the how

Everyone has a why. Your Why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you.

— Simon Sinek

The difference between a goal and a to-do list is that a goal clearly defines your why. And your do-to list is the daily activities of how you will get there. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi contends that when goals and to-do lists work in harmony we can turn life into a flow experience.

Unified flow is achieved when we set a large personally compelling goal from which smaller goals logically follow, we pull our thoughts, actions and emotions into alignment.

A simple example of a large goal might be ‘I want to set up my own business so I can work on my passion’. And your to-do list for that goal will comprise a list of tasks of how you will get you there as well as daily activities. By using a to-do list that aligns with your goal you stay focused on what matter most in life.

Some items on your to do list might include:

Research niche areas

Write a short business plan

Set up a business social media account

Notice how this subtle but important distinction shows the difference between a goal and a to do list.

The difference between goals and a to do list

Top Tip: In my book Find Your Flow, I outline a journal system for flow that offers an improved to-do list. It involved breaking down your it into six items. Three high value priorities (things you must do) and three high flow priorities (things want to do/ bring you flow). If you’re ready to upgrade your to-do list, check out the book.

#2 Your to-do list is a balance of flourishing and surviving

You know you’ve made the leap into adulthood when your lists of things to do consists of paying bills, filing your taxes and calling the repair man. The difference between a goal and a to-do list is that the later isn’t necessarily about flourishing into your potential. It’s also about doing what’s necessary. The house won’t just spontaneously clean itself.

But that doesn’t mean we have to struggle through life’s tedious tasks.

Consider how you can ask for help or how you can make the task more pleasurable (e.g. dancing while cleaning or enjoying a nice cup of coffee while sorting out your bills). When we simple accept we have to do something, rather than wrestle and resist it we can make it easier.

#3 To to-do lists never end

The difference between a goal and a to-do list is that your to-do list will never end. A goal however might. As you take some steps toward your goals you may need to change your goal, readjust or set a new one once you’ve completed it. As you move through the items on your list each day pay attention to how it makes you feel. Is what you’re doing bringing you joy? Does it give you passion? Do you feel a sense of purpose?

Success in life is more about joy in the ordinary moments of life more than status and stuff. It’s about being in good health, contributing to something bigger than yourself and finding meaning.

Top Tip: If you’re struggling to take action towards your goals, check out our blog post on daily habits for success. that will help you take action towards what matters most.

#4 They may be different – but you need both

Now that you are aware of the difference between a goal and a to-do list, you’ll feel the alignment that happens when they both combine. Goals and tasks can work in harmony, bringing inner order to your consciousness as you work towards what matter most.

How are Goals Different from Tasks: Final Thoughts

When it comes to goal setting, to do-lists don’t work on their own. Taking time to align your goals with your tasks can create a sense of harmony and flow. How do you your goals and the the tasks on your to-do list align?

We’d love to hear from you!

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You have the power to reinvent your life and go after your big goals. It's my job to show you how. Let's enjoy the journey together.

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