Why to-do lists don’t work

The idea of writing a to-do list and then proceeding to spend the day ticking things off the list is incredibly appealing. However, things don’t often go that way. The reality for many is that only a few things end up getting ticked off the list. Often it’s the more important and urgent things that remain undone.

The funny thing is, I often feel pretty accomplished when I’m ticking off the list, no matter the level of importance. From what I’d experienced it became clear to me that to-do lists weren’t working.

A while ago I started asking the question, why?

Here’s what I came up with:

  • The act of writing a to-do list is not enough to make you become productive or proactive.
  • The feeling that comes with crossing things off the list doesn’t depend on the importance of the task.
  • Writing a list of things to do is sometimes a form of procrastination.

In my current job, I sometimes write to-do lists and they work because it’s a list of things that I have to do. I have deadlines and people relying on me. Writing a list helps me see all I need to get done in one place.

Outside of work there’s no obligation for me to complete the tasks on my list, the responsibility is in my hands, I’m not answering to anyone else. No-one is going to stop me from organising my nail varnishes and essential oils instead of starting my assignment on coastal engineering.

I think the best way to summarise it is:

We often create to-do lists with the hope that they will make us more productive, when the reality is that we just aren’t committed enough to getting things done. Click To Tweet

Do to-do lists work for you?

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