Is Your To-Do List Working?

The to-do list is a staple of productivity and time management advice. Whether it’s jotted on a post-it, written out neatly in your diary or managed through a piece of software, the to-do list is how we organise our days and try not to forget all those small but vital tasks that we need to get done.

A lot of productivity advice seems to concentrate on making ever more elaborate lists. The thing is, writing a list isn’t some magic bullet. A list won’t necessarily help you get things done – and even if it does, it may still not be working.

Here’s why.

To-Do List Overwhelm

How often do you actually finish your to-do list? And how often do you end the day with a string of tasks still not crossed off?

My problem with to-do lists is that as soon as I start writing things down, I think of a bunch more tasks which I want to get done. I might be putting a blog post on my list – only to remember a guest post I’d like to write, and a newsletter article, and some tweaks that I really should get round to doing …

I can tell when my to-do list isn’t working not because of any external measures of efficiency, but because of how I feel when I look at it in the morning.

If I get a sinking sort of sensation – argh, how am I going to get it all done? – then there’s something wrong.

Leaving Gaps

I’ve been going through Charlie Gilkey and Jonathan Mead’s The Dojo recently, and one of their core tenets which really spoke to me was the importance of leaving margins.

How often have you written down a bunch of tasks on your to-do list, confident that you’ll have time for them all … only to find that one takes half-an-hour longer than expected, another can’t be finished due to some missing information, and another overruns because you got interrupted?

For me, leaving gaps in a to-do list means deliberately having a couple of days in the week which are very lightly scheduled. I focus on the tasks which really need to be done that day (which are surprisingly few), and use the rest of the time for more spontaneous action.

I used to worry that leaving gaps would mean that I didn’t get much done – that I’d be unproductive and end up goofing off without the discipline of a long list to get through. It’s actually made me more productive: I still get some work done, but it feels much more enjoyable because I’ve got the freedom to focus on whatever I want to.

It’s so much nicer to start the day looking at a near-empty list, too; I’ve got a day full of possibilities instead of one packed with commitments.

Alternatives to the To-Do List

Contrary to what some might have you think, it’s perfectly possible to live without a to-do list.

The sky will not fall in. Your laundry will not go undone for weeks. You will not starve to death because there was no “cook dinner” item to check off. In fact, you’ll find that anything important and anything meaningful to you still gets done.

If, like me, you find that a list helps you feel calm, grounded and on top of things, how about trying one of these:

A Checklist

I came across this idea in Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. He advocates using a checklist of tasks – so rather than tying your tasks to a specific day, you write a list of what needs doing for a particular project.

For instance, if you’re about to launch an email newsletter for your customers, a simple checklist might run something like:

  • Choose newsletter provider (Aweber, MailChimp, etc)
  • Plan 4 weeks of content
  • Write first newsletter
  • Customise sign-up messages to guide customers through the sign-up process
  • Create newsletter form
  • Test newsletter
  • Launch newsletter on blog

You probably wouldn’t do all of those tasks on the same day. You could spread them across a week. You could allocate 30 minutes each day to “newsletter setup” and pick up the checklist, working on the next item.

Checklists are nice because they’re complete. You can always add extra tasks onto a daily to-do list (even though you know you won’t get through them all) – but once a checklist is finished, your project is done.

A To-Don’t List

This one’s thanks to Beau Blackwell, who wrote about his use of a to-don’t list:

It’s a really simple idea: a to-don’t list is just a reminder list of all the things you don’t want to do that day, but need reminding of. You can post it at your desk, or on your bathroom mirror, or wherever you want to have reminders of all the crap you want to avoid, that day or every day.

(Beau Blackwell, For Your To-Do List: Create a To-Don’t List, The Idle Life)

So what goes on a to-don’t list? A few of mine would be:

  • Don’t keep working when you need a break
  • Don’t nap in the evening, it stops you sleeping at night
  • Don’t tell yourself that there’s not time for a walk; it’s not true
  • Don’t try to be superwoman
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

A Did-It List

Instead of keeping a to-do list, how about a did-it list?

You start off with a blank page in your diary or notebook or whatever, and every time you complete a task, you write it down:

  • Wrote blog post
  • Finished report
  • Cleared emails

That way, instead of starting the day with a ton of items to get through (and getting more and more tired as you force your way through the list), you can finish the day with a list of everything you’ve accomplished.

Maybe some of these alternatives have sparked off your own ideas on how you can escape from a to-do list which isn’t working – one which makes you feel stressed or overwhelmed – and how you can put something more positive in its place.

If you’ve got any bright ideas (or any to-do list horror stories) to share, the comments are open!


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4 Responses to “ Is Your To-Do List Working? ”

  1. Hi Ali,
    I really like the idea of the “To-Don’t List” – that’s a great way to keep yourself on track. I’ll definitely have to give that one a try.

  2. I usually don’t do every day to-do lists. I have things that I do every day, certain business tasks that I take care of and whatever that implies, it gets done during the usual time. I think that the real problem with to-do lists is that people don’t think about how long it will take them do complete each thing from the list. If they only wrote how much it would take them to do it by each task, they would go a lot easier on themselves because they would see they are overloading their lists and days. And, as you said, leaving gaps is important – to take a break or to do some research and take care of something you maybe forgot you needed.

    • Ali says:

      I definitely agree that we tend to be optimistic on timings! I’ve sometimes jotted down an estimated time next to items, and it’s a little amusing/dismaying to see how often my estimation is way out…

  3. Great post! I really love the idea of margins in a to-do list and a margin day, too. I use a combination of an I Did It list, no list, and a structured list. Just depends on the task.

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