Why Ditching Your To-Do List Will Increase Your Productivity


Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.

-Peter Drucker


Why Ditching Your To-Do List Will Increase Your Productivity

Do you know what public enemy number one is when it comes to productivity? Your to-do list!  Yes, you read right. Your to-do list is reducing your productivity!!!  

In this blog I want to show you why to-do lists don’t actually work, and how they can have a negative impact on your productivity, organisation and cause anxiety. We will then look at how abandoning your to-do list and taking time to diarise the tasks you need to do will transform your time management and improve your mindset.

Don’t work from a to-do list

Don’t Work From Your To-do List

Before we begin, let me explain. I am not against a list, in fact I love a list, I am the list queen. I am an avid fan of checklists too and thoroughly enjoyed reading Atul Gawande’s ground breaking book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. However, I don’t make the error of working from to-do lists.

There are six fundamental problems with to-do lists that make them ineffective.

1. Procrastinating on the important tasks

A to-do list is just an excuse to procrastinate. How often do you scan your list just so that you can pick off the ones you can finish in two minutes? Or you go for the easiest items first (but these are not usually the ones that are the most important). When your to-do list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that will take 60 minutes, you will focus on the shorter / easier ones to enjoy the satisfaction, that feeling that comes from crossing an item off your list.

2. Lack of information

To-do lists do not provide sufficient information about tasks to enable you to determine what you should prioritise and work on first. After all, all tasks look the same on paper.  The list does not tell you how long each task will take, when can you do it and how important it is. It also does not answer the important questions such as how much time do you need and when are you available to do it

3. We overload our lists

In research published in the book, The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List by Bailey Adams,  Adams reports that 41% of all the items on a person’s to-do list are never completed. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, report in their book that one person typically has at least 150 different tasks on their to-do list, and that an executive’s to-do list for a single Monday could take more than a week to finish.

4. To-do lists can cause anxiety

Those nagging (and often distracting) thoughts about uncompleted tasks and unmet goals hanging around in your mind are known as the Zeiganik effect. Worrying about how long our to-do list is and realising how little time we have causes a persistent worry in our head that distracts us from tackling the very tasks that we are worrying about. In their study, Conflict among personal strivings, Psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King discovered that the anxiety that results from having too many conflicting goals causes our productivity as well as our physical and mental health to suffer.

5. Long-term projects suffer

To-do lists often have a negative impact on long-term goals. How many items on your to-do list are linked to your actual long-term big vision goals? It is likely that your to-do list focuses on the short term and not the more serious projects that require significant time and planning! As Jamie Novak, author of Keep This Toss That: Unclutter Your Life to Save Time, Money, Space, and Sanity explains in her book, long-term projects usually end up on the bottom of the list, as we put things off in favour of the easier, quicker tasks (remember my point number 0ne!)until the deadline gets so close they become last-minute emergencies.

6. Unnecessary items

I have always believed that if you can accomplish the task in a couple of minutes now, then just do it, don’t write it down. This is what I call the “two minute rule”. How much time is wasted writing a task down on a to-do list when it would be quicker and more efficient just to get on and do it! As Bailey Adams writes in his book, The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List, 10% of items on a person’s to-do list are completed within a minute.

Diarise Your To-do List

So how are you going to record and manage everything you need to do now you have ditched your to-do list? Simple! You are going to diarise tasks in your diary. Instead of wasting valuable time adding the outstanding task to an endless and unmanageable to-do list, put a specific date and time when you are going to complete the task. You need to put it in your calendar like you would any other appointment you wouldn’t want to miss!   

Take a moment to allocate a specific time in your diary to complete the task. Decide how important the task is, estimate how long it will take, when can you do it and write it in your diary. When are you making those sales calls? When are you choosing the paint colours for the guest bedroom? Exactly when will you be writing that proposal? When are you taking the rubbish to the local tip? Simple. Look in your dairy for a suitable time and allocate it to the outstanding task.

Most people will not have sufficient time to do all the things that they previously had on their to-do list. That’s okay. There is no point having an endless to-do list of tasks that you are never going to have sufficient time to complete. Now you have ditched your to-do list and your diary will accurately reflect the time commitments you have. Diarising your tasks and actions will force you to be honest with yourself and you will need to ditch some of the unimportant tasks. You will also have to say ‘no’ to people when they ask you to do things that you know you have no space in your diary for.

Reviewing Your Diary

I suggest you review your diary at least three times a day to support this new “no to-do list” you and to keep you on track:

First thing in the morning

You should review you diary first thing in the morning as part of your Miracle Morning.  [Not sure what a miracle morning is? Check out my  Importance of a Miracle Morning Routine blog.] This will enable you to review what your day ahead looks like and also to check what tasks you are expecting to complete. It will also give yourself the opportunity to make sure you have everything you need or make adjustments.


A  quick mid-day review will allow you to check that your day is on track and review your plans.

End of the day

At the end of the day, so you are ready and organised for tomorrow. Your last action should review what tasks still outstanding from the day and reschedule them. Finally, you should diarise any new ones and plan your schedule for tomorrow.

So do yourself a favour: Ditch your to-do lists and start living from your diary today.

Further Reading

Are you still struggling to get up and get going in the morning?  Read my article The Importance of a Miracle Morning Routine to find out why creating a miracle morning is so important and how it empowers you to start the day on the right foot so you can control of your day, become more productive and live a life-by-design.

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This article is written by Alice Dartnell, life and success coach of Alice Dartnell Limited. Alice empowers busy professionals to be successful, transform their lives and achieve more by improving their confidence, mindset and time management.

For more information please see www.alicedartnell.com.

Copyright 2021 Alice Dartnell Limited



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