Perhaps the idea of me making my case against to-do lists sounds dangerous. How else are you supposed to remember all the things you need to do?
Don’t get me wrong. Of course you have to record the things you need to make a point of doing. The question is, do to-do lists actually help you get your important to-do’s to done? If you are like most people the answer is probably “no.” Here are some reasons why.
1. No prioritization
To-do lists tend to be just brain-dumps. It feels like you are getting these important thoughts out of your head and into a safe place. The problem is, that often tends to be the end of it. When you do use it, it’s likely that you will cross off the easy things first. Why? Because the more you see crosses through your to-do’s, the more productive you feel. The trouble is, this does nothing to address your top priorities.
2. No task/project distinction
The best way to understand the difference between a task and a project comes from a classic question. How do you eat an elephant? The answer of course is, one bite at a time. The elephant represents a project and each bite represents a task. Consider a to-do list with the two following items: A. Plan trip to Spain an B. Pay electric bill. Which are you more likely to cross off? I’d be very surprised if you honestly chose A.
Why? Because although you are more excited about A., you can do B. more quickly. Planning a trip is a project with many tasks. Without a clear simple task to start, you won’t start. You may hate paying bills, but you know that your electric bill will be paid in just minutes. That’s because it is a limited task. It is one element that goes into the bill paying project. Of course it is vital to do. That’s not the point. The point is your to-do list is not helping you with your projects. You will likely have to rewrite them on your next to-do list, possibly several times.
3. No event/action distinction
Another problem I have with to-do lists is that it may give events and actions equal treatment. There are some to-do’s that lend themselves better to a calendar. These are really events. Any scheduled meeting or appointment with someone else is an event. But there are some events that we need to create for ourselves. These are routines and time blocks. For example, bill paying is so predictable and reliable, that it should become a routine. It can and should be on your calendar.
Revisiting the example of paying the electric bill, that should be part of a regular bill paying event. It doesn’t need to be on a list. I’ll talk about an alternative to task and projects on your list in a bit.
4. No limitations
Finally, I don’t like that to-do lists have no limitations. It is typical to start writing them with the thought that “I have GOT to get things under control.” Once you get started It may feel really good to unload all this noise in your head. You may feel the need to keep pushing so you get it all out. It’s easy to lose track of time when you feel you are on a roll, solving things. Also, it is very easy to spend a lot of time, when you aren’t recognizing the distinctions in 1-3. It is possible to spend so much time unloading that you leave no time for doing. As a simple rule of thumb, plan on spending 10% planning and 90% doing. Planning is vital for maximum productivity, but not if it eats up all your doing time.
OK, so I have spent a lot of time bashing the to-do list. Surely I must have a better alternative. Indeed I do. I don’t necessarily suggest using the same tools that I do, but I do highly recommend these three elements.
System for Tasks
I recommend what I call a “task collector” in one central location. This is for the things you want to make a point of doing this week. I print out 8 sheets every week. On each sheet is a day from my computer calendar. My scheduled events are already on them. What I add to these sheets are the tasks that I want to make a point of doing. I write them down, but not directly on the sheet. Instead they go on 1.5 x 2 Post-It notes. Why? This allows for a flexibility that the to-do list just doesn’t have.
You can plan a task before an event, but if you run out of time, you can move it. Move the Post-it to after the event or a more suitable hour in the day. You never have to write the same task out twice. I keep these pages on a clipboard on an easel next to my desk. Vertical, visible, and minimal gives you the best odds of getting your to-dos to done.
System for Events
While it is more compelling to have tasks on an open clipboard, events are better in a computer calendar. Why? Because a computer calendar can be synced with your smart phone and other electronic devices. That way, you can always have scheduled events in your pocket. Also, a computer calendar and relevant contact information can both be easily shared with others. Finally, a computer calendar can be easily printed and used as a framework for assigning tasks (see above).
System for Projects
Items in a to-do list are not conducive to big projects and life goals. These are the items that get crossed off last, if ever. These tend to be your most important priorities, so what’s a safe way to fit them into your schedule? You want to find a manageable, reliable way to work these into your week. Why? Because if you are waiting for 6 uneventful months to write your book, they will never come. Saving your bucket list for retirement? If this year has taught us anything it is that here are no guarantees. Perhaps the greatest benefit of being truly organized is that you are able to live in the here and now. NOW is the time to take on these big projects and life goals, one bite at a time.
A to-do list just won’t cut it, so here’s what I recommend. Keep all your projects in one very visible place. Don’t keep all the bulky binders, reports, and other research piled up. Instead boil down the essentials to a clear envelope. I call these “project corrals” and I store them in a vertical incline sorter, so they are highly visible. In the front of each envelope I keep a red page of 1.5” x 2” Post-It’s. Each Post-It represents a task necessary in the completion of the project.
Schedule 10 minutes every Sunday to assign these tasks to open spots on your calendar pages. You know that you can’t possibly assign them all, but at least you can assign some. It’s important not to devote too much time to assigning these tasks. The longer it takes, the more likely you will skip it. This habit is too important to skip because it is how to fit in your most important goals.
When your life’s spinning out of control, a to-do list feels like a way to bring control back. However without a plan to fit these items into your schedule, that list can be just a brain-dump. Be sure to create a plan that includes an allowance for tasks, events, and projects.