Your to-do list is not evil: here’s why

Minimalist productivity advice is all the rage. Kill your goals, for example. While you’re at it, kill your to do list; it’s holding you back, not moving you forward. It’s too hard to manage. It’s destroying your focus. Blah blah blah. You’ve heard it, I’m sure.

Most of the crimes that this simple tool is charged with have nothing to do with the tool itself, but everything to do with how you use it. Now, if throwing your to-do list to the wind works for you, then fabulous. Keep doing it, darlin’. However, if your current to do list habits are not-so-hot, but you know the idea of shredding it entirely would be a terrible one – keep reading.

Why your to-do list isn’t killing your productivity:

  • Let’s face it, the whole “if it’s important, you’ll remember it” idea is…nice in theory but not so much in practice. At least for most of us, myself included. If I don’t have a list of my appointments and tasks for the day in front of my face while I’m working (literally, it hangs over my desk), I find myself wandering aimlessly throughout my workday with nothing to guide me and way too much to distract me. Unless you’re working in an environment with absolutely no means of distracting yourself, it’s far too easy to get off track and waste hours at a time.
  • Size matters. If you start each day looking at an exhaustive 20 item task list, then your to do list isn’t killing your productivity, the size of it is. A list like that will leave you overwhelmed with no idea which item to start on next after you finish one, and even if you finish ten tasks (quite a lot of work!) you’re only halfway through your list. This in turn leads to a distinct lack of feeling accomplished, which then affects your motivation and momentum.

Here’s my proposition: to do lists aren’t inherently a bad idea. However, like many things, the way they’re traditionally approached leads to suckage. The solution: revamp the way you approach, create, and use your lists.

The foundations for a fabulous list:

  • Have one list. One. That’s it. You do not need a separate list for every aspect of your life. You lead one life, so have one list.
  • Keep it short. If it can’t fit on a post-it note (written in normal writing, not minuscule etching), then it’s too long. A good way to force yourself into the habit of short daily task lists is using a planner with only a small amount of space for each day. Planners with a full 5″x7″ page for each day? Woah nelly – that’s a disaster waiting to happen for most folks. Ruthlessly edit your tasks and learn to say no, leaving time only for the most important + effective activities. Also, if you have to move a task more than once, get rid of it. You obviously don’t want to do it anyways.
  • Separate tasks from reminders from appointments. There’s a lot of different definitions for a “task”, but here’s how I define it: anything that requires substantial mental and/or physical energy and a time period longer than 15 minutes. Take out the kitty litter? That’s a reminder, not a task. Write a blog post? That’s a task. You need to separate your reminders from your tasks from your appointments (which are essentially time-specific tasks). I don’t care if you color-code them, underline them, or use glitter, but they’re not the same thing and should be treated accordingly. Your tasks need to be done during your peak hours, and depending on the nature of your appointments, they do too. (Client call? Yes, definitely. Doctor’s appointment? Notsomuch.) The reminder items, however, can be done whenever you have the time/energy.
  • Set your bigger goals first. You can even start with your yearly or monthly goals, but for the purposes of this post, let’s stick with weekly. At the beginning of the week, pick 2-4 goals – the main things you want to get done this week. The best way to think of these is that they might not be the only things you’re planning on doing this week, but if they were all you got done, you’d be okay with that. Break each of those goals down into the smaller tasks that need to get done to make the goal happen. This creates your master task list for the week. Then you can parcel the tasks out among your days, depending on factors like what days you run errands, or the days when you have lots of appointments (days like that are a good time for smaller or less intense tasks, not so much for deep diving creative work & brainstorming).

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The ingredients to creating a benign and – dare I say it? – utterly useful to do list. Now, go forth and get shit done.

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