First Up on my To-Do List: Keep my To-Do List

Have you seen any of the posts lately calling out to-do lists as Productivity Porn? They want us to give them up, go cold turkey, and – I know this sounds crazy – start relying on our brains to remember what to do.

This would be awesome, right? Freedom from that layer of post-its taped all around your monitor. Deleting all those to-do apps cluttering up your smart phone. And no more guilt over delayed and unfinished tasks that linger on your lists forever.

Yet while it’s sexy to trash talk to-do lists, it’s time to come back to reality and remember why to-do lists do matter.

To do so, let’s focus on two flaws that are left out when trying to convince us to ditch our to-do lists.

To-do Lists aren’t a Substitute for Process

Jeff Atwood says this, when referring to the to-do lists in his life:

As for the things that didn’t matter in my life, well, those just tended to pile up endlessly in the old to-do list. And the collective psychic weight of all these minor undone tasks were caught up in my ever-growing to-do katamari ball, where they continually weighed on me, day after day.

Ouch. That sounds rough!

If that’s happening though then the problem isn’t the to-do list. Remember, to-do lists can’t replace process, can’t exist without a process, and can’t add more “stuff” to your process.

So what is the process? Well, it’s simple:

    1. Prioritize – Steven Covey’s Time Management Matrix is one way
  1. Divide & Conquer – Break up projects into small, manageable tasks
  2. Update & Purge – Constantly prune your to-do list; if a task has been sitting overdue for weeks, get rid of it. It’s clearly not that important!

The point is, just because to-dos are piling up on your list doesn’t mean the list is the problem.

Quitting Doesn’t Get your To-Dos Done

Remember when Jason Fried suggested that the way to fix meetings was to stop having them?

Same principle here. Instead of quitting to-do lists altogether, there’s a better solution. What if we just had awesome to-do lists instead? (Ok I know that last sentence is a bit ambitious, but bear with me.)

Again, here’s Jeff:

If it matters, if it really matters, you’ll remember to do it. And if you don’t, well, maybe you’ll get to it one of these days. Or not. And that’s cool too.

All right here’s the deal: Jeff’s right that if you can’t remember the three most important things you need to do today, then there’s a serious problem. What he’s forgetting, though, is that there is so much more to your day, and that’s what to-do lists are for.

The easiest way to explain this is by walking through what belongs on a to-do list.

1.  Assignments

The bread & butter for to-do lists. Assignments, action items, basically anything that you gotta do for someone else.

There’s a key difference with these. With an action item, you really don’t get to determine whether it’s important or not (at least after it’s been agreed upon by everyone).

So even if you don’t think it’s important – actually, especially if you don’t think it’s important! – a to-do list for action items is a must. To-do lists keep action items on your radar even when they’re not on your mind.

By the way, looking for a great action item tool? One that integrates seamlessly with your status meetings and syncs with tools like Google Tasks and Outlook? Check out Less Meeting.

2. Chores

Call these chores, checklists, regular routines, whatever you want.
Yes, each individual item isn’t that important. BUT! A) There’s typically a lot of them, and B) There is an annoyance factor if forgotten.

I have all of these things to get done everyday. Will I remember to take out the trash? Probably. Will I remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Possibly. But do I want an earful from my spouse when I forget to pickup groceries for dinner tonight? Heck No!!

3. Your Important Projects & Goals

These DO NOT belong on a to-do list. Well that was easy!
But seriously, you shouldn’t need to add a task like “build awesome iPad app for Less Meeting” to a to-do list. This is where Jeff and the other authors get it right.

As Vivek Haldar puts it,

If you really deeply care about something, you will do it. You will do it without needing a list or a system or a reminder.

It’s that simple.
Aside – You could still argue that you should take your projects and list out all the next actions in bite-size tasks, but that’s an entirely different topic.

Use But Don’t Abuse To-Do Lists

All this being said, Jeff and the other authors are right. To-do lists are abused. Lifehacker’s Law is a prime example:

Lifehacker’s Law: A new To-Do list app will be released every 24 hours.
— Lowell Heddings (@howtogeek) August 27, 2012


By themselves they won’t help you actually get anything done.
However, if you limit your to-do lists to the right kind of content – namely action items & assignments – and continually prune your list to keep it under control, you can get away from all this Productivity Porn and get back to simply being productive.

image via branimir

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