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Getting Things Done

The To-Do List: Do or Do Not. There is No Try.

Dear David,

I’ve been reading and hearing about the trend to gravitate away from to-do lists. The consensus is that lists get too long, people suffer from to-do fatigue, and despite having things listed out, they continue to procrastinate. But somehow, I still need to keep track of my tasks. What do you suggest? Is the to-do list dead?

Hesitant Organizer

Dear Hesitant,

I understand the resistance to to-do lists and the complaints about keeping them. I think there are a couple of reasons for this reticence.

People dislike the to-do list because most to-do lists are incomplete and unclear. Looking at a poorly constructed list causes as much stress as making the list might have initially relieved. Typically, what people have on their lists (if they have them at all) are things like “Mom” and “bank” and “marketing VP.” It’s great that they have captured something that has their attention, but there is still some critical thinking to do about that content. Why “Mom”? Well, her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. What are you going to do about Mom’s birthday? Gee, I’m not sure yet. So, looking at “Mom” on a list reminds you that you still have thinking to do and decisions to make. And, at the moment, you don’t have the energy or mental bandwidth to think or make decisions. So, some part of you says to your to-do list, “Stop reminding me that I’m overwhelmed!”

To-do lists are not uncomfortable per se—but when their content is unclear they quickly become a nuisance. The key to overcoming this is to clarify next actions for any task that requires or has your attention. For example, if a specific next action has been determined about “Mom,” such as “Call sister to get her input on how to celebrate Mom’s birthday,” it becomes a lot more attractive and easier to engage with. Are lists bad? I doubt anyone would say that a grocery list is a bad thing when you go to the market to shop for Mom’s birthday dinner, no matter how large the list.

A second reason people often resist to-do lists is because their lists are incomplete. When you work with incomplete lists, you can’t trust your brain or your lists to give you the full story. There are things on your to-do lists, but you’re also still trying to track things in your head (and your head is a terrible office!) So, you don’t trust your “external brain,” and you can’t trust your memory! Eek! This is a major source of mental fatigue and stress for most people.

What are your options? Simply put, track all your commitments on lists, out of your head, or track none of them! I would be fascinated if someone could rationally explain a successful in-between method. Either your head is the place to hold reminders, or it isn’t. I find it somewhat amusing when, during our workshops, people list everything occupying their attention and then get upset with us because of the size of their lists. Look—those are your lists, not ours! We just help get them out of your head.

The problem with tracking tasks and commitments in your head is that the psyche seems to have no sense of past or future. All tasks are “Do now!” messages in that place. So you’ll be awakened at 3:00 a.m. with the thought about Mom’s birthday when you can’t do anything about it. Stress.

That said, if you are able to simplify your life such that you keep track of nothing in an external system and you simply follow your hunches and inclinations and the appropriate things show up spontaneously for you to focus on in the moment—yay! I love planning nothing and doing what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. But I still need to keep track of the things I need to do to justify the money I’m being paid by clients. That requires I keep track of appointments, phone numbers, projects to complete, and actions I need to take—to produce the value I’m asked to produce.

Gravitate away from to-do lists? Go for it. Or don’t. Just do one or the other—don’t be shy.

Best of luck,

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10 thoughts on “The To-Do List: Do or Do Not. There is No Try.”

  1. Jeff Grigg

    I find it helpful to write each “TO DO” item on a separate 3×5″ card.

    I have always found “the list of todo items” on a sheet to be frustrating and depressing: Even after crossing off items, I still have a big list. And to “clean up” the list, I have to copy (transcribe) all the remaining items to a new list. It’s very frustrating.

    One of the great things about having each “TO DO” item on a separate piece of paper is that the moment I finish any one thing, I can tear up that piece of paper and throw it in the trash. Try it; it’s very satisfying! Every little thing I accomplish is signaled and celebrated by ripping the piece of paper to shreds and tossing it. (Recycle the paper, if that’s your thing.)

    Another nice thing about “TODOs” on cards is that I can easily sort them by priority, separate them by where and when I need to (or can) do them, and discard those that don’t need to be done. I can have some cards for what I need to do when I get home. And some cards for things to do at work. And I’m going shopping, so what are all the things I need to do and by while out on this local trip?

    1. Julinda

      Great idea! I have the same issue w/to-do lists. They get messy and as you said, you have to redo the whole thing to update it.

  2. Steve W.

    I think your final comment: “I keep track of appointments, phone numbers, projects to complete, and actions I need to take” is has your answer. You need to use the right tool for the job and the to-do list is just one tool in the toolbox, along with the calendar, the address book, the project plan, the spreadsheet, the file cabinet, and so on. Much time can be wasted by putting everything on the to-do list. For your next article, I’d like some insights on the highly controversial post-it note.

  3. Lisa

    Looking at a to-do list in progress as a “things accomplished” can be helpful.

  4. Suzanne Falci

    This is what Trello is for. If I have a “Trello” day, I have a productive day. The to do list can be expanded to be detailed for each job .
    totally amazing!

  5. Judy Lohmar

    I’m a big fan of the “Total Workday Control” approach designed by Michael Linenberger. Philosophically it aligns very well with the GTD model and is particularly effective at managing the Ground, Horizon 1 and Horizon 2 of the six level model.

  6. Suresh C R

    Hi David, we are also overwhelmed by the huge lists of things to do because we aren’t sure which ones to work on next. Any suggestions for that?

  7. Mark Volkmer

    I like list and provide them in detail more then others. In addition I add an estimated time to complete that task. THis helps with the “stress” to get it done.

  8. Tim Dyck

    We use Gantt chart’s at work and I use a modified version in my personal life. Unlike a to do list the Gantt chart puts specific order of items an a priority and basically builds it’s own schedule. Don’t know were your at just check and your back on track. You can keep it in your phone and delete items as they are done or add items as they come up.

    1. Jeff Grigg

      Interesting. I find Gantt charts particularly useful for work tasks with strong dependencies. Do you find that many of your tasks have strong dependencies?

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