The to-do list is one of the most widely used productivity tactics. For years, I also had a list of dozens of items. When I started researching productivity, I thought the to-do list was a must.
“Everyone uses them, so it must work!” That’s what we often think. But just because everyone does something, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. At some point, my to-do lists got out of hand. I couldn’t keep up with the items on my list and I started looking for ways to organize my list.
I once read an article that shared 15 steps for working with a to-do list! Fifteen. I think you could probably build a rocket in fifteen steps.
Why do we overcomplicate personal productivity? Why do we come up with a 15-step system for something as simple as a list? There is a better way to organize your life. Ever since I started my blog, I’ve received dozens of questions about using a to-do list. In this article, I share my take on it.
Do Lists Work?
Sure, they can work. I’m not going to argue with that. There’s also scientific evidence that writing down uncompleted tasks also decreases anxiety. And people have been using the to-do list for hundreds of years. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin used it as well.
I’m not against writing down things. In fact, I journal all the time. But the problem with to-do lists is that they often become larger than life. And I’m not talking about a grocery list here. I use those too.
The thing is, large to-do lists only make your work more complicated. That’s why I don’t use them at all in my work routine. My rule is simple: If I need a to-do list to function, I’m not in control of my life.
And I haven’t used one in five years. I believe that your life and work should be so simple that you can repeat the same tasks every day and live well.
If you need a to-do list for the millions of things in your life, have you ever thought about whether you actually need to do those things? Or are you being busy without a specific reason? One of my inspirations to stop using a to-do list is Peter Drucker, the author of The Effective Executive (which is one of the best productivity books I’ve read).
When I get too busy with things that I shouldn’t be doing, I remind myself of his classic quote:
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
How I Avoid To-Do Lists
A to-do list makes it easy to keep adding things to your life. But as Drucker says, it’s useless to do things that should not be done. Another famous thinker, Thomas A. Edison, emphasized this point even better:
“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”
If you want to get rid of your to-do list, rely on principles instead of tactics. Always remind yourself why you’re doing work. What do you want to accomplish? Here are a few of those productivity principles that keep my life simple:
- Do it now—When you encounter a small task that takes less than 5 minutes to complete, just get it done. Think of paying bills, answering or making calls, sending emails, ordering necessities online, picking up something on your way home, etc.
- Prioritize your energy—When you’re overwhelmed by the amount of work you have on your plate, stop and rethink the way you work. I want my work to be simple. I don’t want to fill my day with too much work so I’m totally drained by 4 PM.
- Systemize everything—Working on a book? Write first thing in the morning every day. Want to remodel your home? Spend a whole Saturday on it. Want to get in shape? Pick a workout routine and stick to it.
- Set 3-4 daily priorities—Every evening, I look at my goals and projects. Based on what needs to be done, I set 3–4 priorities for the next day. You could see this as a to-do list. But I just jot down the priorities on a post-it or in my notebook. At the end of the day, those tasks are done and gone.
- Put it on the calendar—I don’t use to-do list apps. Instead, I put important tasks on my calendar.
As you can see, this is a way of life. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re regularly getting overwhelmed with your to-do lists for work, consider throwing them out. Or, see it as a wake-up call to rethink your work. Most of us can work without a list.
I can see why people used the to-do list a hundred years ago. It was their best alternative. Back then, you couldn’t systemize your life the way you can today with the help of technology.
The truth is that a to-do list is old technology. We’ve thrown out the fax, VHS tapes, old dial-in modems, and hundreds of other things that don’t serve us anymore.
Why are we not doing the same thing with to-do lists?