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…