Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

While I believe that the to-do list is a useful part of any productivity system, or just anyone’s drive to be more productive and organized, I also believe that a to-do list has its limits.

Over the years I’ve seen friends and co-workers and even people I’ve consulted with and coached start using to-do lists with the best intentions. But they quickly descend into a scary spiral, and their to-do lists morphed into a paper or digital tyrant controlling them.

The to-do list became the focus of their work and their lives. Their lists became too long, too unmanageable. The to-do list became, to a degree, a repository for not only their tasks but also for their aspirations.

Why does this happen? Because too many people put everything into their to-do lists —what they need to do, what they think they should do, and what they want to do somewhere down the line.

Sadly, people who do that end up with a bunch of tasks that they never get around to. As a to-do list gets longer, it becomes more frustrating. It becomes more intimidating. You see your list growing and you get that nagging sense that you’re constantly falling behind. That you’re not productive. That everything is slipping away from you.

Glancing at a monster to-do list saps your motivation and confidence. You freeze. I know. I’ve been there.

It gets worse, though. I’ve known more than a few people who are literally lost without a to-do list, without that delineated set of tasks to tackle. Being without a to-do list causes them no end of frustration and anxiety.

It shouldn’t be that way. You should control the to-do list. It shouldn’t control you. So, what can you do to take back control? Here are a couple of ideas:

First, focus your to-do list. Keep it short and turn it into a daily task list. Pick two or three or even four of the most important items on the list and complete them today. Then, stop and create a to-do list for tomorrow. Try not to add anything to the list for today. Doing that destroys the focus of your list and, consequently, your focus. You’ll fall into the spiral of continually adding more to your list and you’ll quickly wind up with an unmanageable set of tasks.

Second, get rid of those tasks that you think you might be able to tackle sometime in the future — adherents of GTD call that a Maybe/Someday List. Chances are, you won’t be able get to any of those tasks. That part of the list will just continue to grow as you defer more and more items to the future. A good guide is if you haven’t been able to get to an item in six weeks, cut it. You’re probably not going to get to it ever, so why deal with the added stress and disappointment?

This approach lets you take control of your to-do list and makes it:

  • Shorter.
  • A source of less stress.
  • More focused.

You’re forced to deal with the tangible, not those what I might do things. And that’s how you’ll wind up getting things done.

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