Should You Stop Using To-Do Lists?

drawing of a man looking at his to-do list

The to-do list is an extremely popular tool that people use to become more productive, but the truth is that not everyone finds it useful, and maybe you too are in doubt whether you should stop using to-do lists or not.

Before you decide, I advise you to make sure you haven’t been doing it wrong, first. The reason for this is simple: while it’s true that many people don’t find to-do lists useful, it’s also true that a good percentage of them are not using their lists correctly.

So let’s first take a look at some common mistakes that can make your to-do list much less useful than it could be. (Or if you prefer, you can directly read this post on how to write a to-do list and this other post on how to stick to it.)

Are You Committing These Common “To-do Listing” Mistakes?

Post it and sticky notes on laptop screen

  • Too many things. The first mistake that most people make is writing down too many tasks on their list, so much that they lose energy and motivation just by looking at it. It’s like when you’re trying to choose a movie from your must-watch-list but end up not even watching a single one, because there’s just too many to choose from.
  • Not enough info. A to-do list is essentially a list of appointments with yourself and your goals, and what is an appointment without important information such as the time, place, and duration? Nothing. If you write a list of tasks without even specifying at least when or where you’re going to work on them, your to-do list might as well be considered empty, for a list like this is just a mere collection of vague thoughts and ideas that may or may not be important.
  • No clear priority. This happens more when you put too many things on your to-do list, though you could make the same mistake even if you had very few things to do. When you don’t set a clear order, you don’t know which task to work on first and you have no idea how to proceed, so you end up doing things that weren’t that important while neglecting the most important ones, or, more probably, you just waste all your time doing nothing.
  • Not enough time dedicated. Writing your to-do list is not a task of secondary importance. A good or bad plan can make or break your day. Going through the day using a badly written to-do list is like trying to move your boat towards a certain destination relying solely on an unclear map and on your impromptu decisions. The result is obvious: you’re going to get lost, or you’re going to just stop there, in the middle of the ocean, knowing that you should be doing something, but not quite sure of what exactly, all because you didn’t want to spend a little more time drawing a better map.
  • Perfectionism. When you are a perfectionist, on the contrary, you put too much effort into making your to-do list. A perfectionist will write extremely detailed tasks with very specific information about when, where, and for how long, and maybe even use colors and little symbols to make the list as perfect and good-looking as possible.
    As it often is the case, however, a perfectionist is very likely to find themselves spending more time making a to-do list rather than actually executing it.
  • The “all-or-nothing” mentality. This specific mentality and perfectionism go hand in hand. An “all-or-nothing” person wants to either do everything exactly as planned, or don’t do anything at all, even if they still have 90% of the day left. Some might even calculate how much time they have left, then try to plan everything again without leaving anything out. They take away some minutes from this and some minutes from that, all for the sake of fitting everything into the remaining time. This, of course, is often a never-ending process, and usually, after a few attempts at “re-planning”, one just chooses to do nothing instead of just a little.

Now that we’ve seen the most common mistakes, back to the main question: should you stop using to-do lists?

The answer is, naturally, that “it depends”.

Are you making some of (or all) the most common to-do-listing mistakes? If yes, then maybe you want to try doing it right first. 

However, if you still can’t get more productive using a to-do list, then maybe this tool is just not compatible with your lifestyle, or you just don’t like to-do lists. Either way, if you really want to stop using to-do lists, or if you’re a “productivity beginner”, you can try the following alternative.

A Simple and Beginner Friendly Alternative to To-Do Lists

For many, a to-do list can easily become a source of stress, even if one has done everything correctly when creating their list.

If you also feel stressed out, the simplest and most effective strategy to avoid being overwhelmed by a to-do list is to reduce everything to one. Just one. 

This one thing must be something important, something that has (or will have) a positive impact on your life, something that can bring you even one step closer to your goals, and something that can genuinely make the difference for you between having and not having wasted your day.

This special “something” is different for everyone. For some it might be having three healthy meals a day, while for others it might be running 30 minutes, or reading 20 pages of a book, or practicing a musical instrument. You need to find yours.

“What if I have many important things to do? It’s not like I can only choose one!”

Yeah, I know. What you want is not to just eat 3 healthy meals, just run half an hour, just read a few pages of a book, or just practice your instrument. What you want is the ability to do all of it in a single day, and maybe some other stuff, too.

I get it. I totally get it. After all, being able to do many useful things during a day, all while still having some extra time to just relax and have fun, is something we all strive for.

However, you’re not going to achieve that if you don’t have a clear idea about what’s more important among the many things you have (and want) to do in a day.

So here’s what to do: find out your most important tasks (the Matrix is a helpful tool for this exact purpose), choose only 3 to focus on for the day, and select one of them to be The One. This will be the most important task of the day, and you will do it before everything else.

“What if I have things that are not the most important for my goals, but that I have to do anyway because they’re important nonetheless?”

You’re probably talking about things such as pressing problems, deadlines, emergencies, and unexpected things in general. Things you would put in Quadrant 1 of the Matrix, basically.

The answer is pretty simple: deal with these urgent tasks first. After clearing the pressing and urgent stuff, you can then focus on The One, and do some planning as well, so that you don’t find yourself again in a situation where you constantly have urgent things to tend to.

In Conclusion

Even though the to-do list is the most popular productivity tool out there, probably due to its very basic and intuitive nature, it can hardly (and shouldn’t) be considered beginner friendly, beginner meaning someone who struggles immensely with being productive and hasn’t tried or found a tool that really works for them yet. 

A beginner usually tends to look for ways to go from “zero to hero”, but the best way to become someone capable of doing many things in a day without burning out is to start small and one at a time.

If you are a beginner, or if you are a more experienced productivity learner that has already spent a couple years studying self-improvement but for some reason is still at a beginner level (I know how it feels), then you should use “The One” technique*. 

*(Ok, just ignore the boring name I came up with. What’s important is that you focus on doing at least ONE most important activity every day before everything else.)

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