Where Traditional To-do Lists Fall Down

The standard to-do list1, whether created online or scrawled on the back of an envelope, performs three basic functions: storing tasks, recalling tasks, and organizing tasks. Each of these functions, however, cause problems. If like me you are the type of person that relies heavily on to-do lists, these problems can ultimately poison your productivity.

Storing Tasks – The Benefits

To-do lists are a great way to squirrel away all the things we must remember to do - stowing tasks so that they can safely be forgotten. This frees you up to concentrate on other things. Aggressive organizers leverage this aspect ruthlessly. We take comfort in knowing that our task is safely saved, to be retrieved when it is ready for reconsideration. Without storage, our worrying nature is invoked, keeping us on edge, mentally juggling outstanding tasks and continually unsure of what it is we've forgotten to do.

Storing Tasks – The Problem

To-do lists are used to stow away tasks indiscriminately. If the task is non-urgent enough to make it to the to-do list, it's fair game. A task might be critically tied to life happiness or it might be picking up milk at the store – doesn't matter, both have now been safely stowed away. Worse yet, since the forget-factor is deployed to alleviate worry, it works much better on big, scary, and potentially more important tasks. This results in to-do lists becoming the miscellanea drawer for our life's most important goals. Just jam them in and forget about them. They'll be safe where we don't have to actually do them.

Recalling Tasks – The Benefits

Time to do some stuff? Just pull out the handy to-do list! No need to search my memory for what to rub some elbow grease on – it's all right there in the list, right?

Recalling Tasks – The Problem

The problem with crossing tasks off the to-do list is that we get to pick and choose which items to tackle. The easy, the quick and the convenient get the attention (oh look! I'm already at the mall!). If we manage to get past the convenient items, we inevitably get stuck at the urgent items. If you're a chronic hider like me (see point #1 above), there's sure to be plenty of items that have reached super urgent critical volcano erupting status. Soon, the to-do list becomes the urgency list and all that gets done is one urgent item after another. The most nefarious problem of all with recalling tasks from the to-do list is the avoidance of looming, big important items. Often, these haven't been carved up into bite-sized tasks, so they just float around the bottom of the list with innocent sounding names like "lose 10 pounds" or "get a better job." Figuring out how and where to get started on these items keeps us from doing them. These important (but maybe not urgent) items generally just wait until there's more time, you know, later.

Organizing Tasks – The Benefits

Organizing tasks means moving stuff around, and moving stuff around means being able to prioritize and plan. Similar items can be grouped together. Items can be ordered and sorted by urgency or inter-dependency. When we're finally ready to roll up our sleeves and do some work, we'll have nice, clean, structured marching orders.

Organizing Tasks – The Problem

Why do any tasks at all when you can just feel good by pushing items around on the list all day? In fact, why not put "reorder list" onto the list? Organizing to-do lists doesn't naturally lead to drilling-down and rolling-up tasks. Drilling-down, or breaking tasks into sub-tasks, only makes the list longer. And rolling-up, using lists to understand how we work and what is truly important, is an abstract activity – generally not included alongside left brain list-making. Which is a shame, because the one thing a to-do list could ultimately do for us is not help us get more done, but help us figure out what's most important, so that we can, in fact, do less.

1 The focus here is on basic to-do lists and doesn't include more advanced planning and scheduling tools. And yes, I know about GTD.