To-do lists are foundational tools in our never-ending search for how to be more productive. There are countless apps, strategies, theories, and methods for maintaining the best, most productive to-do list.
But could we be mistaken? Could the to-do list be holding us back? Many highly productive people say yes. And they have some interesting ideas on how to be more productive without using a to-do list.
Why To-Do Lists Can Be Counter-Productive
Task lists certainly have benefits — if they didn’t, we wouldn’t use them in the first place. But they also have some serious drawbacks.
For example, to-do lists can become a major tool of procrastination. Have you ever decided to sit down and organize your list instead of getting started on a task on it? I certainly have — and more than a few times. We feel like we’re being productive when we’re working on our list instead of actually working.
On the other hand, to-do lists make us feel like we never get enough done. When was the last time you checked off all the items on your list? I think I’ve done it once in the past three or four years. Even if you do discover how to be more productive, you’ll never feel like you’ve succeeded.
One reason that we never check all of the things on the list off is that to-do lists don’t take time into account. Unless you’re keeping an extremely detailed list, a 10-hour project will look exactly the same as a 10-minute one. And you feel highly productive if you check off lots of small, less-important tasks that only take a few minutes.
All of those choices might seem nice because you always have something you can work on, but to-do lists overwhelm us with choices. If you have 47 things on your list, your brain starts fighting back. It gets overwhelmed, and negative emotions start to surface. And then you get paralyzed and don’t end up getting anything done.
Of course, many people find that to-do lists help them be more productive. Finding the perfect productivity system for your own life is the first step in figuring out how to get more done in a day. Whether you use a to-do list or not is up to you.
But I’d encourage you to consider how you might be more productive by making the following changes to your daily productivity regimen.
Living in Your Calendar
Daniel Markowitz, in a piece for Harvard Business Review, presents an alternative to task lists that he calls “living in your calendar.” The idea is simple: take your tasks off your list, estimate how long they’ll take, and move them to your calendar.
Scheduling tasks — not just using your calendar as your to-do list — has a lot of benefits. Many people find that actually seeing dedicated time for specific activities makes them more likely to do those tasks and stay focused. Others report that it keeps them from trying to schedule too much in a day.
Having a visual reminder of how many things you’re working on will help you prioritize your current projects and figure out whether you can say “yes” to new ones.
Kevin Kruse interviewed “over 200 billionaires, Olympians, straight-A students, and entrepreneurs” about time management and how to be more productive. How many do you think said that they use a to-do list? Not one. But many of them lived in their calendars.
We’ve discussed time blocking in the past, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. Set specific times where you’ll work on specific tasks, and stick to your schedule.
Follow the Two-Minute Rule
One of the reasons that to-do lists fill up so quickly is that we often put tons of small tasks on there. That’s when things start getting overwhelming and we get stressed. One of the best methods for dealing with this problem is to follow the two-minute rule. If a task will take less than two minutes, don’t put it on a list — just do it.
This will keep a shocking number of items off of your list. Activate your credit card, return that email, get up and stretch, you’ll be amazed at how many things you can do in two minutes. And that translates directly into taking items off of your list. Eventually, you may find that you don’t need a list at all!
Focus on Developing Habits
You know about the big things you need to get done. It’s the small ones that fill up your to-do list and get used to procrastinate on the more important things. Items like “clean the house,” “buy groceries,” and “manage email” often sit on your list for days, taunting you repeatedly.
This is where habits come in handy.
Make a habit of managing your inbox for 30 minutes every afternoon before you leave work. Or right away in the morning. Start grocery shopping on specific days of the week after work. Return phone calls on a certain day of the week.
You can make a habit out of anything. And when you’ve created more habits, you can remove more things from your to-do list. Eventually, you’ll be down to only the big ones, and that’s when time blocking and calendaring really starts to have a positive effect.
Automate and Delegate Small Tasks
Again, it’s the small things that fill up your list and stress you out. Automation can go a long way toward helping solve this problem. You can automate your finances so you barely have to do anything at all — and that’ll save you a lot of time. You can also automate follow-up emails, which (depending on how many emails you send) could save you hours each week.
With IFTTT or Zapier, you can automate just about any digital task. Smart home technology lets you automate things around your house. You can also use an Arduino to automate your home.
When you can’t automate something, consider delegating it to someone else. It’s hard to ask for help, but it can make a big difference in your life. You can delegate at home: ask your spouse or your kids for help around the house. Or at work: ask someone who’s in a better position to complete a task to take it over for you. You can even delegate among your friends: have someone else plan the next gathering to save you some time.
If you don’t have people around you who can take on tasks, consider hiring an assistant. Virtual assistants (VAs) are relatively affordable, especially if you hire them for only a couple hours a week, and can take care of lots of repetitive tasks for you. If you’re looking for ways to be more productive, a VA is tough to beat.
It takes time to get automation and delegation up and running, but once you do, you’ll be amazed at how many things you no longer need to put on a list.
Or Change How You Make Lists
If you schedule everything, enforce the two-minute rule, improve your habits, and find ways to automate and delegate, there’s a very good chance you’ll no longer need your to-do list. If you’re not ready to make the jump yet, though, consider changing how you make your to-do list.
My favorite method for this is adopting the three-item to-do list. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you only put three things on it.
When you know you’re limited to three items, you’ll only put the most important tasks for your day down on paper. This encourages you to focus on the big issues, and let the smaller ones fall into place later.
It’s not going to be easy. But I strongly encourage you to give it a shot. Cutting down the number of items on your list can be a very freeing experience.
Kill Your To-Do Lists and Be More Productive
If you want advice on how to have a more productive life, you might be surprised at my suggestion that you look for an alternative to your to-do list. It goes against a lot of the advice that you’ve read before. And it’s going to feel really weird.
There’s some convincing evidence that it’s a good way to go. The search for how to be more productive never ends. But getting rid of your to-do list is a good next step.
Do you still use a to-do list? Or do you use your calendar? How do you stay productive? Share your thoughts in the comments below!