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.


  1. I love this post – I am a huge fan of to do lists and they are never going to go out of fashion in this house! Nice to hear someone standing up for them for a change.

    Might I also make the case for to done lists. At the end of my day I make a quick list of everything I have got done that day and then I bask in the glow of achievement.


    • Thanks Antara! Glad you liked the post 🙂 And yes, a to-done list (or as my friend Ellie the Headologist calls them, the ta-da list!) is a great idea. Sometimes we get discouraged and it’s because we don’t have a practice so that we can take a step back and see how much we’ve accomplished.


  2. I love my to do lists!If I don’t have them I forget a lot of things. I use a 2 list system though. A huge master list and a daily short list.


  3. I’m also a to-do list lover – they really help me! Thanks for an awesome way to approach them. For me, the drag on my subconscious mind of having a whole bunch of tasks floating around with no anchor is just NO GOOD. Plus, all my life I’ve just really liked writing things down. 🙂


    • Glad to see a fellow to-do list lover, Marla 😉 I totally agree with you about the subconscious drag – if you’re trying to hold multiple things in your mind at once, then you’re going to have a hard time working on anything else with 100% focus. Better to get those items out on paper (or into something like Springpad) so that they aren’t taking up space in your head!


  4. I love my to-do lists. Rather than complicating my life, I find they help me focus, because all the nagging things that need to get done leave me alone when I write them down. Then I order them into things I hope to get done today, this week, and just “soonish”. I enjoy mulching them as they morph into new ones, the things that didn’t get done carrying forward and new stuff getting added. This always feels creative to me and gives me a strong sense of accomplishment.


  5. This is such awesome advice. I’ve always loved – and needed – to do lists. After all, setting goals releases seratonin and noting that you’ve achieved them released dopamine (or is it the other way around? Either way, yey inherent brain drugs!). But they always, always end up too long. I never get through the day’s list in a day. I shall be applying your guidelines RIGHT NOW!


    • Oh wow, I didn’t know that about goals and inherent brain drugs! Interesting stuff. I suppose that explains why we don’t get the same rush when we finish something that we didn’t set out to do with intention. Thanks for sharing – good luck getting your to-do list to work for you!


  6. Love it! I’m a big to-do-list fan, not only does it help me remember and keep me focus and on track and also allows me to feel accomplished at the end. Especially when I have to wear so many hats and have much to juggle between being a Mom, wife,rancher, and run my own business while having a “day job”…Love those lists!


    • I can certainly see why you’d want a to-do list if you wear all those hats, Allurynn! That’s no small feat. Thanks for commenting, & I’m glad you liked the article 🙂


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