Why Your To-Do List Is All Wrong

Most of us have to-do lists, but we often abandon them shortly after writing down our responsibilities. How to keep the list from the trash can.

Published: Nov 26, 2019

It’s something we’re taught from a young age: write down what you need to do to help organize and manage your workload.

And such lists, whether composed with pen and paper or typed into a gleaming app, are the way most of us handle our tasks; more than six in 10 professionals use this organizational tactic. But as popular as they are to create, once built they’re almost universally ignored. Nearly 90% of people that write down their to-dos admit they also eventually abandon part of the list.

If there’s an item you’re constantly avoiding that has to be addressed, make it your so-called “frog,” a term that represents the task you fear tackling the most.

Part of this may be because creators of to-do lists sometimes worry that writing the list is more of a procrastination technique (which it can be) than a productivity hack. Indeed, Wake Forest University researchers have found that when people were dealt two tasks, they underperformed the second responsibility if they weren’t able to complete the first one. But if they were able to write down some thoughts on how to complete the first task prior to starting the second one, they performed better.

But if you’re abandoning that list shortly after getting started, and procrastination isn’t to blame, see if you’re falling into one of these to-do-list traps.

Trap No. 1: You’re making it too long.

If your to-do list looks about as long as War and Peace, then you probably need to whittle down your tasks to prioritize them. Consider the 1-3-5 method, which suggests you select the single most important thing to accomplish from the list. Then you pick three medium-size priorities, along with five easy tasks. This daily practice allows you to complete the most pressing matter, along with ensuring that smaller responsibilities don’t build into five-alarm fires. Don’t worry about tackling a couple of easier goals first; they can get you scratching off part of your list and motivate you to keep going, says David Ginchansky, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Trap No. 2: You don’t know what to prioritize.

If there’s something on your to-do list that never seems to get done, first ask yourself if you really need to do it. There’s a chance you’ve added something you’ll never follow through on because it’s a pipe dream or something that really doesn’t need to be taken care of ASAP. Good managers can help you adopt the “bubbling up” effect, where you hone your instincts to allow key stuff to rise to the top every day. This involves your hippocampus, the part of your brain’s memory tool kit that gives memories meaning and plays a part in memory consolidation, or the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory.

Trap No. 3: You don’t fry your frog.

If there’s an item you’re constantly avoiding that has to be addressed, make it your so-called “frog,” a term that represents the task you fear tackling the most. Think about why the task is causing you to delay. It may be that you need to seek help from others to complete it, or you aren’t sure which direction to take it in. Once you’ve had some time to figure out why it’s causing you so much frustration, set aside time on your calendar when you’re the freshest and when no one can bother you, says Michelle Tillis Lederman, a career coach and author of The Connector’s Advantage. Once you’ve fried the frog, you’ll feel a huge weight lifted off your shoulders that will allow you to press on to other tasks.

Trap No. 4: You’re using tools that feel unnatural.

There are an infinite number of tools available online to build your to-do list. But instead of helping us, trying to choose what to use can make us feel overwhelmed and want to ignore our to-do lists even more. So it’s best to use what’s most effective for you. If it takes you hours to figure out a new app and then you simply ignore the list once it’s live, it’s not the right tactic for you. You may find that you like to use a combination of digital organization and old-fashioned paper-and-pen lists.

Trap No. 5: You’re hiding your list.

“Out of sight is out of mind,” Ginchansky says. To alleviate this, he writes down his priorities on sticky notes, which he places around his computer. “If I didn’t have it in front of me, I know it would get lost,” he adds. Other professionals have gone to further extremes, making their list accountable to the public in some way. Whether through social tools or having a friend hold your feet to the fire, there’s evidence that we’re more likely to get things done if we keep a close confidant apprised of our efforts.

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