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Why “To-Do” Lists Don’t Work, and How to Change That

How often do you feel overwhelmed and disorganized in life, whether at work or home? We all seem to struggle with time management in some area of our life; one of the most common phrases besides “I love you” is “I don’t have time”. Everyone suggests working from a to do list to start getting your life more organized, but why do these lists also have a negative connotation to them?

Let’s say you have a strong desire to turn this situation around with all your good intentions—you may then take out a piece of paper and pen to start tackling this intangible mess with a “to-do” list. What usually happens, is that you either get so overwhelmed seeing everything on your list, which leaves you feeling worse than you did before, or you make the list but are completely stuck on how to execute it effectively.

“To-do” lists can work for you, but if you are not using them effectively, they can actually leave you feeling more disillusioned and stressed than you did before. Think of a filing system: the concept is good, but if you merely file papers away with no structure or system, the filing system will have an adverse effect. The same with “to-do” lists—you can put one together, but if you don’t do it right, it is a fruitless exercise.

Most people find that general to do lists don’t work because:
– They get so overwhelmed just by looking at all the things they need to do
– They don’t know how to prioritize the items on list
– They feel that they are continuously adding to their list but not reducing it
– There’s a sense of confusion seeing home tasks mixed with work tasks, etc

However, there are many advantages working from a “to-do” list:
– You have clarity on what you need to get done
– You will feel less stressed because all your ‘to do’s are on paper and out of your mind
– It helps you to prioritize your actions
– You don’t overlook so many tasks and forget anything
– You feel more organized
– It helps you with planning

Here are my golden rules for making a “to-do” list work:

2. Add estimations: You don’t merely need to know what has to be done, but how long it will take as well in order to plan effectively. Imagine on your list you have one task that will take 30 minutes, another that could take 1 hour, and another that could take 4 hours. You need to know the moment you look at the task, otherwise you undermine your planning, so add an extra column to your list and include your estimation of how long you think the task will take, and be realistic!
Tip: If you find it a challenge to estimate accurately, then start by building this skill on a daily basis. Estimate how long it will take to get ready, cook dinner, go for a walk, etc., and then compare this to the actual time it took you. You will start to get more accurate in your estimations.

3.Prioritize: To effectively select what you should work on, you need to take into consideration: priority, sequence and estimated time. Add another column to your list for priority. Divide your tasks into four categories:

  • Important and urgent
  • Not urgent but important
  • Not important but urgent
  • Not important or urgent

You want to work on tasks that are urgent and important of course, but also, select some tasks that are important and not urgent. Why? Because these tasks are normally related to long-term goals, and when you only work on tasks that are urgent and important, you’ll feel like your day is spent putting out fires. You’ll end up neglecting other important areas which most often end up having negative consequences. Most of your time should be spent on the first two categories.

4. Review. To make this list work effectively for you, it needs to become a daily tool that you use to manage your time and you review it regularly. There is no point in only having the list to record everything that you need to do, but you don’t utilize it as part of your bigger time management plan.
For example: At the end of every week, review the list and use it to plan the week ahead. Select what you want to work on taking into consideration priority, time and sequence and then schedule these items into your calendar. Golden rule in planning: don’t schedule more than 75% of your time.

So what are you waiting for? Grab a pen and paper and give yourself the gift of a calm and clear mind by unloading everything in there onto a list now that you have all the tools you need for it to work. Knowledge is useless unless it is applied—how badly do you want more time?

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

LinkedIn released a survey last year revealing that our professional to-do lists are in dire need of a makeover. Turns out, we’re not so good at “doing” the things we tell ourselves we need to do. In fact, almost 90% of professionals admitted they’re unable to accomplish all the tasks on their to-do list by the end of an average workday.

So if you’re sick of tackling the same stale to-dos every day, it’s time to change that. Here are five tricks to increase your productivity and help yourself actually make it through your list.

1. Keep a Single To-Do List For Work

Let’s be honest: If you wanted to get a complete view of everything you had to do for work right now, chances are you can’t find it all on a single list. Instead, you have a few post-its here, a saved draft in your email there, stickies or text files on your computer, and maybe an app or two on your phone.

And while it’s generally good practice to separate work and play, having a single place for your work-related tasks is a must. So pick your method of choice, and start consolidating. It can be anywhere: a handwritten list inside your trusty planner, a document you keep on your desktop, or an app on your phone.

Make sure, however, that you can add to your list from anywhere—which means that if you use a desktop app, you’ll want to set up a system to capture to-dos incurred away from your computer, such as assignments you get while in a meeting. I personally like to write these down on sticky notes, and then delete or toss them once I’ve transferred them to the master list.

2. Follow the 1-3-5 Rule

Now that you have a comprehensive list of everything you have to do for work ever, you should define a daily to-do list. On any given day, assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. (Note: if you spend much of your day in meetings, you might need to revise this down a bit.) Before leaving work, take a few minutes to define your 1-3-5 for the next day, so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning. If your position is one where each day brings lots of unexpected tasks, try leaving one medium and two small tasks blank, in preparation for the last-minute requests from your boss.

Yes, I know it can be tough to narrow your list of to-dos down to 1-3-5—but it’s important to prioritize. Like it or not, you only have so many hours in the day and you’re only going to get a finite number of things done. Forcing yourself to choose a 1-3-5 list means the things you get done will be the things you chose to do—rather than what just happened to get done.

Planning ahead like this also means you’ll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away—as well as the tools to re-prioritize your other work. For example, when a surprise presentation falls on your lap, try: “Sure, I can get that to you by 3 PM, but the Q1 reports won’t be ready until tomorrow then, since I’d scheduled to work on that today.”

3. Complete One Significant Task Before Lunch (Your Least Favorite One, if Possible)

I’ll admit that this one is tough for me, but it works. Take one of your big or medium tasks and tackle it first thing in the morning, before email even if you can. There’s no better feeling than crossing off a tough task before lunch. Author Brian Tracy calls this “eating your frog,” adapted from the famous Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

My co-founder, Kathryn, often defines her “frogs” in the evening to prepare for the next day; with that, she’s prepared to tackle them in the morning, and it keeps her from pushing off less pleasant tasks for many days.

4. Use Your Calendar as a To-Do list

If you find that you always overestimate how much you can get done in a day, an effective approach is to put your to-dos on your calendar, just like a meeting. Rather than outlining your daily to-dos onto a list, schedule them, leaving enough time each. Sending in your W2 confirmation information to HR might take 15 minutes, while preparing the Q1 strategy for your team may require a few hours. The important thing is to be realistic.

When you try this approach, also make sure you block time in your calendar for catching up on email, brainstorming, or other important-but-not-deliverable-oriented tasks. For example, try blocking an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to work through your inbox—and then don’t spend time in between trying to handle emails the minute they come in, when you’d really planned to be working on something else.

5. Reduce Meetings to Increase Productive Time

Finally, if you find you really can’t get done what you think you should be able to in a day, despite all the advice above—consider whether you might be suffering from meeting-itis.

As economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” In fact, multiple surveys done on the subject reached similar conclusions that somewhere between a quarter and half of the time spent in meetings is a waste, not to mention, you can’t really get your other to-dos done while you’re sitting down talking to someone else.

The solution: Limit your meetings. Before scheduling a meeting, think about if this could be resolved with an email or phone call first, or by popping into someone’s office for a few minutes. If a meeting is required, list the key agenda items to determine the necessary participants and the shortest amount of time you can schedule. And yes, it’s totally OK to schedule a 20-minute meeting, no need to round to 30! If you must have meetings, try to group them together to leave large uninterrupted periods of time during your day for the real work to get done.

Yes, reorganizing and planning ahead are both investments upfront—but just think how happy you’ll be when you actually get a full day’s to-do list crossed off. So get yourself organized, get all your to-dos in one place, minimize your distractions, and start conquering that (one-day-sized) list!

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

LinkedIn released a survey last year revealing that our professional to-do lists are in dire need of a makeover. Turns out, we’re not so good at “doing” the things we tell ourselves we need to do. In fact, almost 90% of professionals admitted they’re unable to accomplish all the tasks on their to-do list by the end of an average workday.

So if you’re sick of tackling the same stale to-dos every day, it’s time to change that. Here are five tricks to increase your productivity and help yourself actually make it through your list.

1. Keep a Single To-Do List For Work

Let’s be honest: If you wanted to get a complete view of everything you had to do for work right now, chances are you can’t find it all on a single list. Instead, you have a few post-its here, a saved draft in your email there, stickies or text files on your computer, and maybe an app or two on your phone.

And while it’s generally good practice to separate work and play, having a single place for your work-related tasks is a must. So pick your method of choice, and start consolidating. It can be anywhere: a handwritten list inside your trusty planner, a document you keep on your desktop, or an app on your phone.

Make sure, however, that you can add to your list from anywhere—which means that if you use a desktop app, you’ll want to set up a system to capture to-dos incurred away from your computer, such as assignments you get while in a meeting. I personally like to write these down on sticky notes, and then delete or toss them once I’ve transferred them to the master list.

2. Follow the 1-3-5 Rule

Now that you have a comprehensive list of everything you have to do for work ever, you should define a daily to-do list. On any given day, assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. (Note: if you spend much of your day in meetings, you might need to revise this down a bit.) Before leaving work, take a few minutes to define your 1-3-5 for the next day, so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning. If your position is one where each day brings lots of unexpected tasks, try leaving one medium and two small tasks blank, in preparation for the last-minute requests from your boss.

Yes, I know it can be tough to narrow your list of to-dos down to 1-3-5—but it’s important to prioritize. Like it or not, you only have so many hours in the day and you’re only going to get a finite number of things done. Forcing yourself to choose a 1-3-5 list means the things you get done will be the things you chose to do—rather than what just happened to get done.

Planning ahead like this also means you’ll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away—as well as the tools to re-prioritize your other work. For example, when a surprise presentation falls on your lap, try: “Sure, I can get that to you by 3 PM, but the Q1 reports won’t be ready until tomorrow then, since I’d scheduled to work on that today.”

3. Complete One Significant Task Before Lunch (Your Least Favorite One, if Possible)

I’ll admit that this one is tough for me, but it works. Take one of your big or medium tasks and tackle it first thing in the morning, before email even if you can. There’s no better feeling than crossing off a tough task before lunch. Author Brian Tracy calls this “eating your frog,” adapted from the famous Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

My co-founder, Kathryn, often defines her “frogs” in the evening to prepare for the next day; with that, she’s prepared to tackle them in the morning, and it keeps her from pushing off less pleasant tasks for many days.

4. Use Your Calendar as a To-Do list

If you find that you always overestimate how much you can get done in a day, an effective approach is to put your to-dos on your calendar, just like a meeting. Rather than outlining your daily to-dos onto a list, schedule them, leaving enough time each. Sending in your W2 confirmation information to HR might take 15 minutes, while preparing the Q1 strategy for your team may require a few hours. The important thing is to be realistic.

Lifehacker, a favorite site of mine, put it best:

Most people don’t schedule their work. They schedule the interruptions that prevent their work from happening. In the case of a business like ours, what clients pay us to make and do happens in the cracks between meetings, or worse, after business hours.”

When you try this approach, also make sure you block time in your calendar for catching up on email, brainstorming, or other important-but-not-deliverable-oriented tasks. For example, try blocking an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to work through your inbox—and then don’t spend time in between trying to handle emails the minute they come in, when you’d really planned to be working on something else.

5. Reduce Meetings to Increase Productive Time

Finally, if you find you really can’t get done what you think you should be able to in a day, despite all the advice above—consider whether you might be suffering from meeting-itis.

As economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” In fact, multiple surveys done on the subject reached similar conclusions that somewhere between a quarter and half of the time spent in meetings is a waste, not to mention, you can’t really get your other to-dos done while you’re sitting down talking to someone else.

The solution: Limit your meetings. Before scheduling a meeting, think about if this could be resolved with an email or phone call first, or by popping into someone’s office for a few minutes. If a meeting is required, list the key agenda items to determine the necessary participants and the shortest amount of time you can schedule. And yes, it’s totally OK to schedule a 20-minute meeting, no need to round to 30! If you must have meetings, try to group them together to leave large uninterrupted periods of time during your day for the real work to get done.

Yes, reorganizing and planning ahead are both investments upfront—but just think how happy you’ll be when you actually get a full day’s to-do list crossed off. So get yourself organized, get all your to-dos in one place, minimize your distractions, and start conquering that (one-day-sized) list!

This article was originally published on The Daily Muse. For more productivity tips and tricks, check out:

Alex Cavoulacos is a Founder of The Daily Muse, where she crafts plans to conquer the world one feature at a time. Follow her on twitter @acavoulacos.

Ah, to-do lists. So many of us write them. But why? Is it that surge of dopamine we get when we can cross something off our list? Is it the sense of order it gives us? Is it that feeling of accomplishment at the end of a long day?

In theory, to-do lists are great at tackling daily tasks, but in reality, they can leave many of us feeling overwhelmed, dejected and not productive at all—exactly the opposite of what we were hoping for.

So why do we do this to ourselves?

“We as Americans are notorious for focusing on getting it all done—doing it all,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “The truth is that many of our to-do lists don’t have the context of what you need to do next and how long it will take, which is why it’s so frustrating when you can’t complete them.”

What’s Wrong with To-Do Lists

In many to-do lists, we tackle the “easy wins” as soon as possible. While one task may take two minutes, another may take 2 hours. Invariably, we’re going to go with the shorter one. While this may be quick and painless to do, they may not be the most important—or difficult—tasks to get accomplished.

We may also not account for the complexity of each task. For example, if you plan on refinancing your house, simply writing down a task to “refinance the house” wouldn’t encompass everything involved. It may mean several phone calls, research, and lots of paperwork. Eventually, because this task seems too complex, it will get pushed further and further down your to-do list.

Before you add, “chuck my to-do list” to your to-do list, Dr. Fox shared one thing you can do that works better.

Work Within Your Schedule, i.e., Your Calendar

We can all benefit from working our to-do lists within our calendars. For some of us, our calendar dictates minute-by-minute important meetings, events, and appointments, so why not include important tasks that need to be accomplished that take up time in your day too.

“Our brain wants to accomplish what we wrote down, but often we just don’t have a plan for them,” Dr. Fox said. “We only have a certain number of hours in a day. Putting your tasks within your calendar will help you visually see what can and cannot reasonably be accomplished.”

Dr. Fox shares three tips to work your tasks into your schedule:

  • Prioritize What Matters: Look at your list of to-do items and determine how much time you will need to accomplish each and prioritize the hardest, most important at the top. Ask yourself, “Does this need to get done today, or can it wait until later?”
  • Schedule Tasks In Calendar: Once you have determined the highest priority tasks and the amount each task will take, block out time on your calendar for those tasks that must get done each day.
  • Save Space for the Unknown: Was there a fire you had to put out a work, or you got called home for a sick little one? Invariably, there will be things that pop up during your day that weren’t planned.

Leave gaps in your schedule each day for these unexpected moments—or just to have some time to breathe!

“Putting this into practice can create structure to your day and help you set realistic expectations of what you can accomplish,” Dr. Fox said. “While to-do lists, in theory, are useful, unless you make them a part of your daily schedule, you may as well throw them out the window.”

If the stress of your to-do lists is affecting your physical and mental health, don’t fret. Schedule an appointment to speak with one of our Banner Health behavioral health specialists. They can provide support and guidance and get you back on the right path.

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Do you really think Richard Branson and Bill Gates write a long to-do list and prioritized items as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and on and on?

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

In my research into time management and productivity best practices, I’ve interviewed over two hundred billionaires, Olympians, straight-A students, and entrepreneurs. I always ask them to give me their best time management and productivity advice. And none of them have ever mentioned a to-do list.

There are three big problems with to-do lists.

First, a to-do list doesn’t account for time. When we have a long list of tasks, we tend to tackle those that can be completed quickly in a few minutes, leaving the longer items left undone. Research from the company iDoneThis indicates that 41% of all to-do list items are never completed!

Second, a to-do list doesn’t distinguish between urgent and important. Once again, our impulse is to fight the urgent and ignore the important. (Are you overdue for your next colonoscopy or mammogram?)

Third, to-do lists contribute to stress. In what’s known in psychology as the Zeigarnik effect, unfinished tasks contribute to intrusive, uncontrolled thoughts. It’s no wonder we feel so overwhelmed in the day, but fight insomnia at night.

In all my research, there is one consistent theme that keeps coming up.

Ultra-productive people don’t work from a to-do list, but they do live and work from their calendar.

Shannon Miller won seven Olympic medals as a member of the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, and today she is a busy entrepreneur and author of the new book, It’s Not About Perfect. In a recent interview she told me:

During training, I balanced family time, chores, schoolwork, Olympic training, appearances, and other obligations by outlining a very specific schedule. I was forced to prioritize…To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute by minute.

Dave Kerpen is the cofounder of two successful startups and a New York Times bestselling author. When I asked him to reveal his secrets for getting things done he replied:

If it’s not in my calendar, it won’t get done. But if it is in my calendar, it will get done. I schedule out every 15 minutes of every day to conduct meetings, review materials, write, and do any activities I need to get done. And while I take meetings with just about anyone who wants to meet with me, I reserve just one hour a week for these “office hours.”

Chris Ducker successfully juggles multiple roles as an entrepreneur, bestselling author and host of The New Business Podcast. What did he tell me his secret was?

I simply put everything on my schedule. That’s it. Everything I do on a day-to-day basis gets put on my schedule. 30-minutes of social media–on the schedule. 45-minutes of email management–on the schedule. Catching up with my virtual team–on the schedule…Bottom line, if it doesn’t get scheduled it doesn’t get done.

There are several key concepts to managing your life using your calendar instead of a to-do list.

First, make the default event duration in your calendar only 15-minutes. If you use Google Calendar or the calendar in Outlook it’s likely that when you add an event to your calendar it automatically schedules it for 30 or even 60 minutes in length. Ultra-productive people only spend as much time as is necessary for each task. Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, is notorious for conducting meetings with colleagues in as little as 5 minutes. When your default setting is 15-minutes, you’ll automatically discover that you can fit more tasks into each day.

Second, time-block the most important things in your life, first. Don’t let your calendar fill up randomly by accepting every request that comes your way. You should first get clear on your life and career priorities and pre-schedule sacred time-blocks for these items. That might include two hours each morning to work on the strategic plan your boss asked you for. But your calendar should also include time blocks for things like exercise, date night, or other items that align with your core life values.

Third, schedule everything. Instead of checking email every few minutes, schedule three times a day to process it. Instead of writing “Call back my sister” on your to-do list, go ahead and put it on your calendar or even better establish a recurring time block each afternoon to “return phone calls.”

That which is scheduled actually gets done.

How much less stress would you feel, and more productive would you be, if you could rip up your to-do list and work from your calendar instead?

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

It’s extremely easy to lose track of your goals without even realizing it.

Earlier this week, I talked about:

  • Time tracking & optimization
  • The #1 Reason People Don’t Succeed at Accomplishing Their Goals
  • The Most Effective Goal-Setting Plan You’ll Ever Find

Even if you implement the to-dos in the above articles—even if your system is perfect—you’ll still falter along the way if you don’t take the time to review how you’re performing. I recently stumbled upon the daily schedule Benjamin Franklin kept:

Woah! The man was super reflective.

He started the day by asking himself, “What good will I do today?,” and ended the day by asking, “What good have I done today?”. He also took time at the beginning, middle, and end of each day for examining and reflecting on his work. One of the most prolific and accomplished people ever took the time to reflect, plan, and organize at least three times a day.

This astounds me.

I don’t know anyone who reflects this much. Honestly, no one. And I’m starting to think that’s a big part of the reason so few of us are feeling like we’re living lives at the awesome levels of productivity and achievement we desire. We aren’t measuring success. We aren’t reviewing results or assessing the data.

Every moment is a data point—and yet, none of us take time to track and reflect on those data points. Reviewing and goal setting are things people do at the very beginning and end of a year, and not so much in the bulk of the middle. The problem is we’re missing incredible opportunities to learn, iterate, and grow.

So, even if you’ve got a perfect system and you know exactly what you want to achieve, none of it really matters if you’re not reviewing your successes, failures, triggers, and habits frequently.

The remedy for that is the very powerful and important weekly review. I do my weekly review every Sunday, late in the afternoon (before I get too tired). Leo Babauta, a minimalist productivity guru, wrote a few fantastic (and simple) articles on weekly reviews:

  • Weekly Review: The Key to Achieving Goals
  • How to Do a Weekly Review in Under an Hour

Those two links above give you a pretty good overview of how to conduct a weekly review. The basic steps for my personal weekly review are as follows:

  1. Find a one-hour time block you can commit to each week. Babauta suggests a Monday or Friday, but I think weekends work best. Less stressful.
  2. Plan to not miss a single weekly review. It’ll throw you off for the week ahead, and before you know it, your goals will be a hot mess.
  3. Fill out my weekly review form. Here’s the one I created for myself:

The lines in grey comprise the bulk of the weekly review. Most of them are self-explanatory, but I’ll get into how I use Wunderlist later next week, because it’s important (Wunderlist is a to-do list manager, but I utilize mine very differently than a normal to-do list).

The reflection questions are also great. They are a way for you to stop and soak in how the past week was for you—along with setting intentions for the week ahead. You can tailor this weekly review to work for you, but this is a comprehensive template for you to work off of if you need a place to start.

The weekly review is one of my favorite times of the week. You’ll see a huge difference in how you spend your time when you actually review what you’ve done and plan for what you want to accomplish in the week ahead.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

T he to-do list is one of the most widely used productivity tactics. For years, I also had a list of dozens of items. When I started researching productivity, I thought the to-do list was a must.

“Everyone uses them, so it must work!” That’s what we often think. But just because everyone does something, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you. At some point, my to-do lists got out of hand. I couldn’t keep up with the items on my list and I started looking for ways to organize my list.

I once read an article that shared 15 steps for working with a to-do list! Fifteen. I think you could probably build a rocket in fifteen steps.

Why do we overcomplicate personal productivity? Why do we come up with a 15-step system for something as simple as a list? There is a better way to organize your life. Ever since I started my blog, I’ve received dozens of questions about using a to-do list. In this article, I share my take on it.

Sure, they can work. I’m not going to argue with that. There’s also scientific evidence that writing down uncompleted tasks also decreases anxiety. And people have been using the to-do list for hundreds of years. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin used it as well.

I’m not against writing down things. In fact, I journal all the time. But the problem with to-do lists is that they often become larger than life. And I’m not talking about a grocery list here. I use those too.

The thing is, large to-do lists only make your work more complicated. That’s why I don’t use them at all in my work routine. My rule is simple: If I need a to-do list to function, I’m not in control of my life.

And I haven’t used one in five years. I believe that your life and work should be so simple that you can repeat the same tasks every day and live well.

If you need a to-do list for the millions of things in your life, have you ever thought about whether you actually need to do those things? Or are you being busy without a specific reason? One of my inspirations to stop using a to-do list is Peter Drucker, the author of The Effective Executive.

When I get too busy with things that I shouldn’t be doing, I remind myself of his classic quote:

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

A to-do list makes it easy to keep adding things to your life. But as Drucker says, it’s useless to do things that should not be done. Another famous thinker, Thomas A. Edison, emphasized this point even better:

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

If you want to get rid of your to-do list, rely on principles instead of tactics. Always remind yourself why you’re doing work. What do you want to accomplish? Here are a few of those productivity principles that keep my life simple:

  1. Do it now — When you encounter a small task that takes less than 5 minutes to complete, just get it done. Think of paying bills, answering or making calls, sending emails, ordering necessities online, picking up something on your way home, etc.
  2. Prioritize your energy — When you’re overwhelmed by the amount of work you have on your plate, stop and rethink the way you work. I want my work to be simple. I don’t want to fill my day with too much work so I’m totally drained by 4 PM.
  3. Systemize everything — Working on a book? Write first thing in the morning every day. Want to remodel your home? Spend a whole Saturday on it. Want to get in shape? Pick a workout routine and stick to it.
  4. Set 3–4 daily priorities — Every evening, I look at my goals and projects. Based on what needs to be done, I set 3–4 priorities for the next day. You could see this as a to-do list. But I just jot down the priorities on a post-it or in my notebook. At the end of the day, those tasks are done and gone.
  5. Put it on the calendar—I don’t use to-do list apps. Instead, I put important tasks on my calendar.

As you can see, this is a way of life. It’s not for everyone. It’s also not new. If you Google this, you’ll find a lot of people who don’t use to-do lists. Jason Fried is one of them, and there’s also a good article about why to-do lists don’t work on Harvard Business Review (from 2012).

And again, I’m not talking about grocery lists or lists for chores. I’m talking about the endless to-do list that you keep adding work tasks or goals to.

I shared this idea on my newsletter and a bunch of people freaked out: “I can’t live without my to-do list!” That’s the whole problem. People are so attached to things. I don’t like to rely on tactics for my productivity. You must be able to function without tools and apps.

So if you’re regularly getting overwhelmed with your to-do lists, consider throwing them out. Or, see it as a wake-up call to rethink your work. Most of us can work without a list.

I can see why people used the to-do list a hundred years ago. It was their best alternative. Back then, you couldn’t systemize your life the way you can today with the help of technology.

The truth is that a to-do list is old technology. We’ve thrown out the fax, VHS tapes, old dial-in modems, and hundreds of other things that don’t serve us anymore.

Why are we not doing the same thing with to-do lists?

Why to-do lists don't work (and how to change that)

You’re probably familiar with the story for a jar that represents the time available in your life. You fill the jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand representing the big, medium, and small stuff you do every day. If you start with pebbles and sand, you’ll run out of space for the big rocks–the things that matter most. But, by starting with the rocks, you’ll still have room for the pebbles and sand; they’ll just take up far less of your precious time.

A handy way to think about rocks is that they’re large projects that have multiple steps and take a long time to complete. Pebbles are medium-sized, single-step projects. Sand to-dos take no more than five minutes to complete.

The problem is most people put rock, pebble, and sand tasks on one long list and become overwhelmed. Instead of slogging through the stack, we shut down or procrastinate. Or, we don’t schedule enough time for the big rocks and give too much time to the small stuff preventing us from meeting important goals.

Here are four steps to segment your to-do list to help you prioritize the most important items, stay focused, and get more done.

1. Distinguish between rocks and pebbles

Everyone’s definition of rocks and pebbles will be different. Invest a little time in creating clear distinctions, and you’ll better prioritize the rocks. Experiment using these simple guidelines:

Rocks feels bigger than pebbles. Rocks are often a collection of prerequisites or multi-steps processes. An interview is a rock, for example, because you need to prepare for the questions and have the appropriate attire before you start. Rocks usually take more than 30 minutes to complete, while a pebble can be knocked out in a half hour.

Rocks feels heavier than pebbles. Rocks can have emotional weight. They create a sense of resistance or anxiety to completing or starting a task, even when we’re not clear why. Pebbles, on the other hand, are effortless to tick off. You’ll know you’ve discovered a rock masquerading as a pebble when it’s a single step, but you don’t want to do it. For example, you notice you’re avoiding scheduling a one-on-one with your manager–a one-line email that will take 30 seconds to write and send. After some thought, you realize you’re afraid that she’s not happy with your performance. The task, then, isn’t as simple as scheduling a meeting, but includes dealing with your emotions and prepping for the discussion. You might need to attend to additional details before scheduling, such as gathering data, calling a friend for support, going for a walk, and clearing your calendar afterwards to process the feedback.

2. Create three separate lists

To use your time well, create a list for each category. I even have a subsection under each for phone calls because I can make them when in transit or waiting for something. You can separate out work and personal items as well. Here’s a snapshot of my list from last week:

Rocks

Pebbles

Sand

Write rocks vs. pebbles article

Revise handouts for icebreaker

Pay monthly business tax

Submit proposal for executive retreat

Consolidate points for empathy expert interview

Send M’s invoice

Write keynote on personal courage

Pack for Irvine trip

Create new executive women’s program brochure

Revise teaching points for Courageously You! workshop

Phone

Phone

Phone

Call friend X and ask him if he’s angry with me

Call Dr. Koch to understand lab results

Activate new credit card

Home

Home

Home

Decide holiday travel

Make book club dessert

Send fall party invite

Have family conversation about device use

Create alterations pile

3. Break up the rocks

When you’re overwhelmed by the number of rocks on your list, assign them an order and break them down into smaller steps. Perhaps you’ll spend an hour on part of Rock One before moving on to tackle part of Rock Two and so on.

Don’t spend a lot of time planning pebbles, however; it will usually take you less time to do them than to plan them.

4. For each rock, take the first small step

I don’t like writing client proposals, so the evening before, I save the template under my client’s name and leave the document open on my desktop. That first, tiny step lowers the barrier to starting the next morning.

Now that you can clearly segment the tasks on your list, when you find a rock overwhelming, instead of spending two hours procrastinating on a video game, you can tackle a few pebbles or some sand. Walking from one building to another on a work campus? Make that short phone call on your sand list. On hold with your doctor’s office? Complete that LinkedIn recommendation for your colleague.

I often joke that it’s great when I have a big, scary rock on my list because I get a lot of smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand done.

‘While we try to overhaul society, we still have to tackle our to-do lists.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi/The Guardian

‘While we try to overhaul society, we still have to tackle our to-do lists.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi/The Guardian

The effects of this technique are extraordinary

T he term “burnout” dates to 1974 , but judging from the media, and many people I know, it’s the official diagnosis of 2019. Well, semi-official: last month, in Geneva, the World Health Organisation announced it was recognising burnout for the first time – yet the next day, it emerged this wasn’t the case. (Let’s be fair to the WHO staff, though; they’re probably just very tired.) In a widely shared essay, the Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen described her own burnout, and the associated “task paralysis”, leaving her unable to complete basic chores. This kind of burnout isn’t a temporary crisis, she argued; for millennials, “It’s our base temperature.” And it won’t be solved by self-help: “You don’t fix it with a vacation, or an adult colouring book, or ‘anxiety baking’ – which helps explain why so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: we are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.”

I agree, and thus hesitate to mention a self-help technique here. But while we try to overhaul society, we still have to tackle our to-do lists, and there’s one technique I’ve recently found more useful than any other, as well as better suited to this era of exhaustion and overwhelm: limiting work-in-progress, or WIP. It’s a simple notion, originating in the Japanese system of industrial scheduling known as “kanban”, adapted by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry in their book Personal Kanban. You fix a small upper limit to the number of tasks you’ll be working on at any one time – say, three. Then, you add no further tasks to your plate until you’ve finished at least one. When there are only two tasks remaining in your WIP, you can bring in one more. And so on. The kanban system visualises this using Post-its on a whiteboard, arranged in columns: each task moves from the “to do” column to “doing” to “done”. If your WIP limit is three, there should never be more than three notes in “doing”. (You can add a “waiting” column, where you shunt tasks that are waiting on other people.)

The effects are extraordinary. By limiting WIP, you feel your finite capacity, so the counterproductive urge to start 15 tasks naturally subsides. Without trying, you find yourself breaking projects down into doable chunks (because if “write book” or “get new job” is one of your tasks, it’ll jam things up for months). Above all, this way of working brings a deeply satisfying sense of having a foothold on things. Benson and Barry write: “Linearly finishing one task before embarking on the next commitment becomes addictive, a pattern, and eventually a habit.”

The obvious objection is that you have too many demands on your time to limit WIP to three. But that’s a misunderstanding. You already can’t do more than a handful of things at once. If the world demands you do a hundred, that’s an impossible request. Your only options are to choose, consciously, which ones will have to wait – or choose unconsciously. And to be clear, none of this is a magic solution to burnout. Instead, it’s a repudiation of magic solutions, a liberatingly down-to-earth engagement with how things actually are.