The Case Against To-Do Lists (and What to Use Instead)
To-do lists are supposed to keep us on task. It turns out they do the opposite.
Say you bought a new phone, but at the end of each day, without fail, the operating system crashed. Would you keep using it? Of course not. You’d take the phone back to the store, complain, and get a new one.
And yet many people run their entire lives on a faulty operating system. It’s called the to-do list.
Countless productivity experts and creators of to-do list apps tell us that in order to get things done, we need to make a list of our tasks. Don’t get me wrong: Dumping everything you need to do out of your head and into a journal or app is good and necessary. What I’m about to argue against is the way many people use to-do lists to run their lives, as I did for decades.
Have you ever met someone who manages their day using a to-do list and actually finishes everything they set out to do? Me neither. To-do list devotees keep an ongoing register of all the things they promise to get done, but at the end of each day, they’re surprised to find that their list of uncompleted tasks has gotten longer, not shorter. The next day, they repeat the Sisyphean practice. Their days, months, and sometimes entire careers are spent in a harried blur of feeling like they’re never doing enough.
If this sounds familiar, I’m here to assure you that it’s not you — it’s the system. You’re basically running your life on Windows 95. Thankfully, there’s a better, more effective way to manage your tasks, but before we get into that, let’s discuss what’s wrong with to-do lists.
To-do lists make you think you’re the problem
Ever notice how much easier it is to add things to your to-do list than to actually do them? With no constraints, we just fill up our lists with even more things we’ll never finish.
Back when I was letting to-do lists run my days, I’d blame myself for not finishing all the tasks I’d written down. I’d think there must be something wrong with me or with my inability to follow through. I didn’t realize this negative self-talk reinforced a kind of stereotype that made me less likely to accomplish my goals.
As I described in my book, Indistractable, several studies have found that behavior change requires identity change. If you want to get in shape, you can’t give up one month after setting a New Year’s resolution. You must see yourself as an athlete, so you can commit to exercising for the rest of your life.
What kind of identity does an ever-incomplete to-do list reinforce? Not a positive one. Having a constant reminder that we didn’t do what we said we’d do cements a self-stereotype. Eventually, we begrudgingly accept not following through. I’ll finish it tomorrow, we tell ourselves. What’s one more day? We repeat this cycle until the narrative begins to change from what we do to who we are.
This happened to me: I allowed myself to believe I was the kind of person who was “easily distracted,” and I, therefore, became increasingly distractible. I started telling myself I was “bad at managing my time” and began acting accordingly.
But it wasn’t me that was “broken.” People are awful at predicting how long tasks will take them to complete — hence our habitual failure to finish what’s on our to-do lists. It’s the methodology that’s screwed up.
To-do lists lead to distraction
Running your life using a to-do list leads to more distraction, not less. To understand why, it’s important to understand what “distraction” is.
A distraction is any action that pulls us away from what we intend to do. The opposite of distraction is not “focus.” It’s “traction.” Both words come from the same Latin root trahere, which means “to pull.” Both words also end with the same six-letter word, “action,” reminding us that both “traction” and “distraction” are actions we decide to take, not things that randomly happen to us.
Understanding the distinction between traction and distraction is critical. By this definition, we cannot call something a distraction unless we know what it is distracting us from. Therefore, we can’t say we got distracted unless we have defined, in advance, what traction means for us at that moment in time. Playing video games or watching television can be an act of traction if that’s what you planned to do with your time. Conversely, working on a task most people would laud as “productive” can be a horrible distraction if it is not what you committed to doing with your time.
When I used a to-do list to run my day, I’d start the morning ticking off tasks, thinking I was on point. I didn’t realize I was letting my to-do list lead me towards distractions that were preventing me from reaching my goals. For instance, even when I knew I had a big project looming and needed to spend the morning working on it to meet my deadline, glancing at my to-do list gave me permission to escape into doing something — anything — else. Hey, look! My to-do list says it’s time to rearrange my desktop icons into color-coded, alphabetized folders!? Okay! I guess I’ll do that real quick before I start writing that report I’ve been putting off.
To-do lists allow us to get distracted by the easy or urgent tasks at the expense of the important work. We get pulled off track by the most pernicious form of distraction — the kind we succumb to without realizing it’s happening. We run faster and faster in the name of getting things done, without realizing we’re headed in the wrong direction. Then when we finally realize we didn’t allocate the necessary time to work on the most important tasks, we tell ourselves, it’s okay. I crossed five things off my list. I’m good.
To-do lists destroy the fun in life
Before I staged a coup d’etat against my to-do list, I used to let my unfinished tasks invade my thoughts and leisure time. I’d sit down for a pleasant dinner with my family, only to start thinking about all the things left undone on my to-do list. Later, when I’d play with my daughter, the unchecked boxes would start to torment me.
A recent study found that intrusive thought, including thinking about what we “should” be doing, can kill the enjoyment of life’s most important pleasures. The tyranny of the to-do list comes not only from its power to waste our time while we’re working but also its ability to take over our minds while we’re trying to actually have a life.
Time studies show Americans far underestimate how much leisure time they have. Both mothers and fathers in several Western nations spend significantly more time with their children than previous generations. Yet, even though Americans have time to watch on average nearly five hours of television every day, they report feeling busier than ever.
My hunch is that few working professionals today, especially high performers, even remember what leisure time is supposed to feel like. They’ve simply forgotten how wonderful it feels to have the peace of mind of spending time solely focused on their children or taking a walk.
Fortunately, there’s a research-backed way to help you reclaim more joy from every minute of your day.
Instead of being a to-do list maker, become a schedule builder
To free yourself from the tyranny of the to-do list, you must break the habit of looking at your list to tell you what to do. So what’s the alternative? Build a weekly schedule.
Keeping a schedule seems simple, yet most people don’t do it (or don’t do it correctly). They plop a meeting or two onto their calendar and leave the rest of it blank. A better approach is to use what psychologists call “setting an implementation intention,” a fancy term for deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.
Planning in advance how you intend to spend your time is the only way to know the difference between traction (what you said you would do) and distraction (anything else).
Keeping a calendar is not only useful for work-related tasks. We can hold time for our important relationships and for investing in ourselves. The practice fixes all three faults of running your day with a to-do list.
First, being a schedule builder instead of a to-do list maker affirms a better self-image. People are awful at predicting how long a task will take them to complete — hence our habitual failure to finish the tasks on our to-do lists. From now on, measure yourself not by what you finished, but whether you did what you said you would do, for as long as you said you would, without distraction.
Second, unlike a to-do list, deciding how you will spend your time in advance has been shown to lead to fewer distractions. A schedule makes it more likely you will stay on track by adding the constraint of a fixed period of time. When you know you only have one hour to work on a task, you become more focused instead of letting yourself flounder.
Finally, using a schedule brings back the fun in life by relieving the feeling that you should be doing something else. If you’ve scheduled time to play video games, there’s nowhere else you should be and nothing else you should do. You can finally enjoy leisure time without guilt. In fact, doing work when you schedule time for fun would now become a distraction, since it’s not what you planned to do with your time.
If you’re ready to build your own schedule, I’ve provided an in-depth guide and schedule maker tool here. The goal is to schedule every part of your day on your schedule maker — a concept that sounds stressful until you remember that this includes downtime. (This technique is called “timeboxing” or making a “zero-based calendar.”)
Does making a schedule guarantee you’ll never go off track? Of course not. But it’s important to be aware that when we don’t plan time in our day to do what really matters, life quickly falls out of balance. We can all upgrade our life operating systems and learn better ways to get more out of our days.