Does your To-Do list look like and endless scroll? Is it a table of incompleteness that makes you feel guilty?
There are some better ways to work. There are tools out there. But first: What if you stopped using a To Do list?
They Don’t Work
Or at least, they’re less use than you think, research quoted in the “Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List” by Bailey Adams says that.
- 41% of to-do items were never completed.
- 50% of completed to-do items are done within a day.
- 18% of completed to-do items are done within an hour.
- 10% of completed to-do items are done within a minute.
- 15% of items added as to-do items were already completed.
So we’re not using them as a list of things to do, but as a way to make ourselves feel better about things we’ve already done.
A to-do list doesn’t rank your tasks. All tasks appear equally important, and there’s no distinction between what will take you the most time. They don’t help you structure your work.
They can also be a creativity killer – when we feel under pressure to complete a list of tasks we focus on that at the expense of doing creative work. We can also focus on the small stuff and lose track of the important stuff.
Caveat: Sometimes They Do Work
You don’t want to forget something you’re responsible for, and that’s the rationale for creating to do lists. But you can do it in a smart way.
In my current job I have a responsibility for managing content on an intranet site, the requests can arrive at any time, but usually there isn’t a precise publication deadline. I have a standing appointment in my agenda on a Friday to do this work, when a request comes in I add it to that appointment, usually just by adding the email request to the appointment. Effectively I’m constantly building my Friday to do list.
But here’s why it works:
- I know exactly what I need to do during that Friday appointment
- I don’t have to think about those tasks for the other days of the week
- The appointment is 2 hours, if I don’t need the two hours I get the time back, but I never spend more time on the to do list than I have scheduled.
Methods and Tools
There are a slew of methods and tools out there to help people be more productive, try them, pick one that works for you.
Named after a tomato, in this technique you break your tasks into 25 minute periods, and take a five minute break at the end of each.
I find 25 minutes annoyingly short, but I do use the “plan task + break” concept, with the niceness of the break in proportion to the focus needed for the task.
A paper-based system that combines a to do list, a planner, and a diary. You use symbols to indicate what different items are, and you can add more description to any item, develop a habit tracker, colour-code your entries and instagram the whole thing. My inner stationery queen loves the idea, but being realistic I don’t have time to document in this detail or to decorate my to-do list at work.
Todoist is an elegant task list online and on app. I like this tool, particularly because it can be used across devices and across projects. I’ve only used the private version, although I included work tasks on the list, but there is a business version.
If you work for a company that uses Microsoft then this is probably available. It lets you create tasks, add details, and assign them to other people, there are some options to sort and prioritise, but it doesn’t act as a true project management tool. As a colleague said “where’s my Gantt chart?”
Paper and pencil
My favourite tool, and I keep coming back to paper and pencil, it works for me. I write down things I need to do per week, and group them by project, plus a category for admin and one for personal tasks. I draw a box next to each task, and I check them off when done. If I haven’t done them I draw an arrow next to them as in “send to next week”. I tick off most things each week but I just move stuff if I need to; it’s a tool not a rule.
My half-baked theory is that “to do” lists work for things we need to remember to do, but destroy creative thinking, after years of trying all sorts of options I’ve come back to pencil and paper. I keep a list on paper for the week with the tasks grouped by “project”, “admin” and “personal”. I put down things I shouldn’t forget, tasks and follow ups I need to pick up adding a check box and a two letter code for the day it needs to be done. Creative tasks don’t get listed unless I need to send some output, instead I block a chunk of time on my calendar “PPT for team meeting” for example, giving me freedom to think in that time.