To-Do lists can be great. Or they can be terrible.
I use to-do lists often, about 50% of my working days, currently. I know I shouldn’t be using them so much.
“Oh, yeah. I’m a LIST PERSON…”
I remember hearing people bragging about using lists when I first started at my consulting job out of college. These were the experienced people and the ones with MBAs that I looked up to.
So I thought, “Hey, lists are good…I should use them too.”
But there are problems with to-do lists.
There are a few main problems with to-do lists, and they aren’t apparent.
No Time Component
You have a list of tasks that you need to do, but you don’t have any indication about how long any of them will take.
So you’ll often default to shorter or easier tasks as you choose what to work on. It feels good to mark things off your list as complete. It makes you feel productive to cross off another completed item.
Many times important tasks that you should really work on and complete take a long time. Those are the ones we tend to skip because they are hard and sometimes unstructured.
No Distinction For Importance or Urgency
This goes back to the Eisenhower Matrix where you map out urgent and important tasks. Email is a good example:
I see a new email, a notification, and someone is asking me for something – this is straight up spam – but it feels like I should do something with it.
(Full Disclosure: I actually replied to this email when I should have been writing this. D’oh!)
Obviously, this email isn’t important to me at all — it was literally some random person asking me to do them a HUGE favor. Perhaps it was important for them, but just noise for me, noise that isn’t helping me reach my goals at all.
But it felt urgent — and I had the urge to reply back to this person.
Adds to Stress
It feels terrible to end a day with things left on your to-do list. It’s heartbreaking to end each day like that, but that’s exactly what I used to do when I was working a full time corporate job and working on my side hustle.
I’d have a big long list of things to do, and I’d keep adding more each day.
The result: each day felt a little like a failure since I didn’t get everything done. I would get a lot done overall, but it seemed like I wasn’t accomplishing what I set out to do most days.
I was working 10-12 hour days for my day job, plus waking up at 4 AM to work on the side hustle in the mornings. So I felt defeated since I was trying to hustle hard.
To-Do Lists for “Mood Repair”
This is a bit embarrassing to admit…
I heard about this concept of Mood Repair and To-Do Lists from Charles Duhigg, NY Times Best Selling Author, in his productivity book. Here’s the embarrassing way this works: You’ll add really easy stuff to your To-Do list, like “write out your to-do list,” and that’s one of my favorite ones.
One thing I found myself doing was writing things on my list just so I could check them off as soon as I wrote them down. Wow.
WHY do we do that? It feels so good to check off a task that we’ll put super easy things down on our list. Or if you’re like me, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to mark off a task, even if you’ve already done it.
(NOTE: I still do this occasionally but now it’s more for a laugh and I know exactly what I’m doing and why it’s happening.)
Do you do this? Leave me a comment below if you’ve ever done this… 🙂 No judgement.
The Solution to Using To-Do List in a Better Way
Like I said, I use a to-do list about half the time. It’s probably too much but I’ll tell you why I still use them.
When to use a to-do list
Sometimes you need to get a series of non important, generally short tasks.
The key to use the to-do list when you’ve already completed your most important tasks.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport uses a sort of a to-do list in the time blocking exercise. (That’s an technique I use often and it’ll be in the pilot Productivity course.)
The reality is everyone does have some kind of busy-work to do. Maybe you have to fill out your timesheet or fill out some forms for an upcoming event or answers emails. Everyone has emails.
If you’ve completed your important things, then the to-do list can help you navigate and direct your other tasks.
When NOT to use a to-do list
Most of the time you shouldn’t use a to-do list. You should spend most of your time on important tasks that help you reach your goals.
If you can work on the important things most of the time, you’ll be far better off in the long run. You’ll accomplish more in general and you’ll be making progress towards your goals.
Normally, you don’t have a huge number of important tasks — it’s usually 1-3 really highly leveraged things that you should do to get the most output for each hour and minute of effort.
If you can’t narrow your tasks down to the top few, then you need to re-evaluate and prioritize your tasks.
You’re probably giving too much credit to some tasks. Prioritizing all your tasks is a very hard exercise but one of the most important things you can do.
Okay…I’m telling you to not use a to-do list most of the time. So what can you do instead?
Live In Your Calendar
Daniel Markovitz in his HBR article suggests “living in your calendar.” You have to schedule out all your tasks and follow a schedule. It’s hard to do that, close to impossible, if you haven’t done it before. Don’t worry, you’ll get better.
You have to think about tasks and budget time for each one. And you’ll quickly realize, like I did, that unexpected things happen all the time.
So if you fill up your calendar, you’ll have a problem. You literally have to budget for random emergencies and distractions that will arise. I’ll give you some tips on how to deal with this issue in the action item section.
The power of scheduling is that you have to evaluate each activity and through that process you’ll get a better idea of whether or not you should be working on it at all.
Schedule To-Do Tasks
This works well for me. As I said, I keep a to-do list often, and the list mostly consists of busy work. Here is what I have on my list right now:
- Edit Niche Site Project “To-do list” post (this post)
- Answer NSP subscriber emails (I’ve been putting this off.)
- Reply to personal emails
- Write broadcast email for NSP to send this week
- Create holiday gift list
- Go to the store to get beer for a holiday party
- Create launch schedule for next Five Figure Niche Site
You’ll notice some of the items are trivial sounding, others seem really time consuming and overwhelming — proving the point that a to-do list lacks the time & importance components that would help you prioritize what you should work on first.
What I should do is create a list of the “busywork” tasks and batch that work. I can schedule a specific time to work on those tasks when my creative juices are tapped out and my energy levels are lower. For me, that’s in the afternoon around 2:30 to 4 PM. (I like to have my mornings for creative work like writing or shooting YouTube videos.)
Figure Out What’s Important
I talked about this idea through the lens of the Eisenhower Matrix that helps you determine what is important and urgent.
The biggest takeaway should be the Non Important and Non Urgent tasks, which end up being the things that you shouldn’t even be doing.
(Note: It’s valid to have an important task that doesn’t align with your work goals, but is important on a personal level. E.g. Watching a baseball game with your children for a couple hours on the weekend. )
A lot of the to-do list items are going to be in the Urgent and Not Important quadrant, and those are great tasks to batch.
If you can just eliminate the 4th quadrant tasks and stay on top of the important tasks, then you’ll usually be way ahead of where you’d normally be.
Your Action Items
If you’re a normal person and use to-do lists:
- Look at the list and determine the important items that are highly leveraged for your goal.
- Work on your important tasks. Schedule the time and disconnect from the internet so you can focus. I recommend 90 minutes to about 3 hours depending on how big your important work is.
- Batch the to-do list tasks, schedule the time if you want. Generally, you’ll want to work on them when you have a lower energy level. In other words, don’t use your best effort on busywork.
Want a challenge?
If you’re really disciplined and want a challenge, try to schedule out your tasks using your calendar.
It will take a week to get the hang of it since humans are usually really bad at estimating how long and how difficult tasks are. Additionally, things always seem to pop up out of nowhere— surprises and emergencies that you can’t anticipate.
Here are 3 tips for the scheduling:
- Look your schedule and figure out where your schedule didn’t work out as you planned at the end of each day. It will happen, no question about it, and you can improve your scheduling skills if you look at the mistakes and figure out how you could have done a better job.
- Don’t spiral out of control if you miss a scheduled item. I used to freak out and get frustrated if things didn’t go as planned. And they almost never do! So I’d be behind on my schedule and my mindset was not right to get meaningful things done. Be flexible and adaptable.
- Schedule less than you think you can do. Like I keep saying, surprises come up almost everyday in life, not just related to your goals. If you build slack into your schedule, you can work within your schedule and be better equipped to handle surprises. The worst case scenario is that you finish work early (which feels GREAT), and you can work on some of the busy work, or even better, read a book.