How not to make a to-do list

I am a sucker for nice-looking notebooks. So I was thrilled to see a snazzy Èccolo model in a bag of speaker swag I was handed at a conference recently. Then I read the little note from the Èccolo company accompanying the notebook: “A typical day in the life of an Èccolo Journal. Things to do:

Run marathon
Start business
Travel to every continent in the world
Make a perfect chocolate chip cookie
Run for office
Finish dissertation
Rule world?”

Oh, I know, it’s supposed to be funny. But it struck me as pretty much a catalogue of every sin people make with to-do lists.

A small list of them:

Including more things than can actually fit in one day. I suppose that “travel to every continent in the world” does not appear on many people’s to-do lists. But plenty of to-do lists suffer from grandiose ambitions. All activities take a block of time. There is only so much time in the day. You cannot fit 26 hours of activities into a day. You can’t fit 24. Heck, you probably can’t fit 18, because there are transitions, and stuff comes up, in addition to one’s physical body needing sleep. Putting more activities on a daily to-do list than can actually fit in a day means you won’t do them. Not because of a lack of willpower or intelligence but because of physics. There is no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and then not doing it.

Listing activities for which success is unclear. What is a perfect chocolate chip cookie? As judged by whom? One can certainly plan to make chocolate chip cookies. But “perfect” requires more detail.

Listing multi-step activities as one item. Take “run for office.” This more practically involves checking the filing rules with your local officials or state secretary of state, getting whatever signatures or party approval is required to appear on a ballot, etc. Those are the sorts of steps that can go on a to-do list. Not this. Likewise, unless you only need to hit print to finish your dissertation, this is another entry that needs to be broken down into multiple items. The problem is that often people don’t know what the constituent steps are. But that’s a recipe for these multi-step items being procrastinated.

Failing to take into account energy levels. I’ve run a marathon. It was fun! But I didn’t really feel like doing much else the rest of the day. So that’s probably an item to put on its own day, and leave the rest for some other time.

Being wishy-washy. Rule the world? Why the question mark? Something should be either on the list or not. If it’s on, it gets done. If it can’t be done, it is immediately pushed to another time in the near future that has been identified as spillover time precisely because things come up. This is how a to-do list becomes useful: when you actually hold yourself accountable to doing it.

How do you make to-do lists?

Photo: Could this notebook rule the world?

18 thoughts on “How not to make a to-do list

  1. This is a great list and although I’ve heard and thought all of these things before, I’m totally guilty of many of them! Would love to hear your thoughts on estimating how long things will take – this is a huge challenge for me.

    1. @DK- time estimation is definitely a skill, and like all skills, we probably get better with practice. What probably helps me is that I’m naturally pessimistic, and overestimate how much time stuff will take. I did not go to the drug store to get my passport photos when I had a half hour window today, because I knew it would take 8 minutes to get there, and 8 minutes to get back, and so the process would have to fit in 14 minutes or less or I’d be late to my next thing. To be honest, I probably could have made it. And no one would have cared if I were 5 minutes late. But I didn’t do it because of that overestimation thing.

  2. I have finally figured out that my inability to estimate how much time something will take is preventing me from getting stuff done. (Thanks to Jon Acuff’s book ‘Finish’!). I’ve always known I was bad at it, which is surprising because I’m a project manager by trade (and decent at estimating for WORK, but not home. Go figure.)

  3. Love this!
    I am definitely less productive when I make a daily to do list based on a week of work! Now, I list out each step for every task I have planned, and physically cross off things as I accomplish them each week. It helps me manage my time too, so I can see where I have weird blocks of time.

    For my dissertation, I settled down one weekend and made an initial topic reading list, and a not yet organized list of topics I will be writing about. I also printed out a monthly calendar between now and my return to med school, and have assigned topics to weeks. So far, it’s working out!

    1. @Clare – sure, it would be a great list of 7 dreams for one’s life! I think the specification of time period issue is also a problem with to-do lists. Is it for today? For a week? For one’s life? That’s the beauty of the David Allen “Someday/maybe” list – it’s not time specific. Anything that is time specific goes on a different list.

  4. I find i do best when my daily list has about 7 items/tasks, otherwise if it is too long things just have to get moved to the next day. I also like to get 5 of those 7 things done before lunch time. I try to only put things on there that I truly intend to get done, otherwise I feel like it’s not really a to do list and becomes more of a goal/dream list. If there’s something that has to be done first or is super important, that item goes on a post it note on the front of my planner.

  5. Such great points! I’m mostly guilty of being unaware of how long a task will take. Sometimes I get anxious about a long list, but each task ends up taking less than 5 minutes; other times I feel confident I can handle a short list, forgetting that each one requires deep work. Right now my to-do list is divided between writing work, home/parenting work, and school work, but I think I want to divide it further into quick tasks vs. deeper creative work.

      1. I agree about the difficulty of correctly estimating the time needed for tasks and meetings. Like many of us, I’m guilty of routinely underestimating time (like scheduling back to back meetings without transition or walking time between them). Laura – would love to hear more from you on this, including what your experience and research tells you about the long-term impact of never quite finishing our to-do lists. Does it diminish their usefulness if we don’t really believe we’ll complete them?

        1. @Katherine – interesting question. I think the usefulness of a to-do list comes mostly from the prioritization process, and from a feeling of completion that then allows you to declare victory for today and move on to the next day with no sense of being “behind.” The problem with a 50-item to-do list is that you won’t do all 50 items. So which 8 did you do? Were they the right 8? Making a very short list forces you to answer the question of what *has* to get done today. Making short lists also helps to make one feel less busy while getting more done, because when you’ve done what you assigned yourself for the day, you’re done! You can actually stop. Because you know you’ve done a lot of great stuff, and you’ll do more great stuff tomorrow.

  6. I second the comments about estimating time for tasks. I struggle with this so much at work (mostly for figuring out for a full project since I never get to just focus on one project it’s hard to divide up how much time it actually took). I love that notebook, it looks beautiful! Also love your breakdown of how this to list is way to vague and ambitious for one day.

  7. After reading the comments so far, I’ll just say that tracking your time is very helpful in learning how long things really take.

  8. Great post! I’d love to see you write about estimating how long things will take. And not just from a time-frame standpoint, but also a mental energy/physical energy standpoint, like your comment about the marathon.

  9. I agree with pretty much all of this and my biggest struggles like others are to create daily to-do lists being actually doable in a day.

    One thing I do, and this may be totally crazy or “wrong,” but sometimes I will be so overwhelmed with my to-dos, I just sit there stressing and surf my phone instead of actually tackling my to-do list. I found a trick for me to get over that indecisiveness about where to start is–I’ll write a list of all the to-dos. Every single one (work, home chores, nagging calls to make, etc.) Pick a number and then count to that number on my list and tackle whatever item it lands on first. As soon as I’m done, I then count the number again on my list and figure out what’s next. As I’ve gotten older and more people pull on my time, I’ve become much better at prioritizing and figuring out what needs to be done instead of leaving it up to random chance. I often don’t have this “luxury” of leaving my to-do list up to chance. But sometimes I still find myself in those moods where I just can’t even spend the brain power prioritizing or making a decision. It’s more a trick I use to get me started working.

  10. This is the common refrain that causes women to feel they are failing. They wake and start each day with their unfinished to-do list piling on from the day before with their unmanageable one.

    1. Make a list of everything you accomplish, including calls, setting up Dr. appointments, driving, and see that it is overwhelming and a set-up for failure. When you make your list see if it includes ‘shoulds’ and where are the needs and wants.

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