We all love the feeling of checking off completed tasks on our to-do list. ✅
It gives us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
What if I told you that the very act of making a list could be sabotaging your productivity? It's like setting sail on a ship with a leak – no matter how fast you row, you'll never reach your destination if water keeps pouring in.
Studies have found that to-do lists may actually hinder our ability to focus and complete tasks efficiently.
The most obvious solution to your situation is the problem.
The Drunken Chef Problem
Our chef has a drinking problem.
Not when cooking (safety first!), but only when they want to share their recipes.
Most of the recipes are family secrets passed down for generations. The very idea of sharing them drives our beloved chef to drink.
Using to-do lists to complete important work is the equivalent of working while impaired.
The result? We get the recipe for the most magical dish in the world for the price of a few bottles of wine. Totally worth it.
The problem? It's in no order whatsoever. The measurements are suspect. And some of the ingredients are hard to discern because our chef is either sobbing or laughing maniacally.
The recipe is there on paper, but it might as well be a poorly constructed ransom letter. Anxiety-inducing and unsolvable.
But it's not your fault.
We Weren't Built To Work Using Lists
Outside of repetitive tasks like food shopping, lists are antithetical to how we work.
We don't just "do stuff." We build things. We complete projects. We work as a team. Our brain and energy are best channeled by recognizing that energy and devising how to channel it when at work.
But lists undo all of that magic!
In case, pick up your favorite snack -- the one you consider to be food magic.
Now flip it to read the ingredients. Sugar, salt, preservatives, fat, etc.
Looks NOTHING LIKE the amazingness you love to snack on.
That is what a To-Do List looks for the work you are meant to complete. Incomprehensible, disorganized, and with no instructions for assembly.
Here are three more reasons that To-Do Lists are evil.
Lists Deceivingly Suck Up Our Time
You have to context switch from an app, a call, a meeting, or a document to another area to capture the to-do item.
Context switching is the silent killer of productivity; the disruption prevents you from doing your best work.
The only worse thing is having to go back later when you find "do the TPS report" do know what it means. We all lose IQ points without context.
Confusing Next Action Approach with a To-Do List
Any project or work item contains infinite possible items of work. And you can put to-do items on all manner of lists, digital and paper.
But knowing an action to take isn't as important as knowing the next action to take.
Making the perfect pizza has many steps, but you have to follow them in order to get the desired results!
We all have long to-do lists on our phones or stuck to our refrigerators. They’re filled with tasks we don’t want to do, but we know need to get done. Yet learning how to plan your day isn’t about daily tasks. It’s about the actions you take that move you toward your goal. You need to ditch your to-do list and create a Massive Action Plan (MAP) - Tony Robbins
Our Brain Makes Highlights for Itself
To-do lists relieve the anxiety around "losing" something important. We write it down, or circle it, or add to a post it -- so that we can help that item stick in your brain.
First, the emphasis you find now on this item might not be a critical part of the project. The recency bias on information shows that we often conflate the "most recent" piece of information as the "most important."
Secondly, putting this item on a list takes the pressure off your brain. It is always recording and will have highlights of the critical parts in your subconscious.
Using a to-do list can detrain your ability to capture really important items. This is a disastrous loss, as the human brain will only work as hard as you require it to. Reducing cognitive load actually reduces your compute power!
Not all is lost, however.
There are some straightforward ways to remove a To Do List preference in favor of methods that will have a better outcome.
Option 1: Batch Your Tasks
TLDR; Leverage the lists you have to be more efficient.
Grouping similar tasks on an existing to-do list is task batching. This involves scheduling specific time blocks to complete similar (and smaller) tasks together.
By grouping similar tasks, you reduce the need for context-switching throughout your day, saving time and mental energy.
Instead of checking your inbox every 15 minutes, scheduling two 20-minute blocks to process emails during the day is more efficient.
Instead of mailing the letter and then walking the dog, walk the dog to the mailbox.
Simple, yet incredibly satisfying (trust me).
Option 2: Create a Theme for your Day
TLDR; Don't batch tasks. Batch entire days to manage a segment of your work.
If you are ready to move beyond the tracking of habits tasks, this is the next logical step.
Instead of fighting with the minutiae of herding tasks into batches, give each day a purpose.
Your goal is to complete all the work related to this singular area during this day of the week. So if Wednesday is marketing day, all of that work takes priority.
Even if you can't kick off your day with a Power Hour, you can certainly use this theme-based approach to filter the work you should be doing.
Does the Work Fit the Theme? Yes = Do It. No = Skip It.
Don't dismiss this approach -- the value is in the simplicity.
Don't use software or broad appeal to choose the system. The simpler something is, the more likely you are to (a) succeed and (b) repeat the habit!
"A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure." - Cal Newport on Time Blocking
Option 3: Use Time Blocking
TLDR; Managing the small stuff can be its own job. Create blocks of time for better results through deep focus.
Once you have discovered the power of themes in your work, you can advance to the next level. Here you can focus the themes into several discrete blocks throughout the day.
The value here is two-fold.
First, you don't have to manage every hour of your day. There is flexibility in the larger blocks should you need to adjust.
Second, you can focus on several different areas in a single day. Sometimes context switching helps you to alternate between different types of work based on your energy, resources, and available time.
How Time Blocking Works: Set times to work on your most important tasks.
Start at first with an hour daily. You can use our free Agency Agenda template for this.
Next, block parts of your morning for critical work. For example, two big blocks before lunch. Use this trial period to learn what does and doesn't work for you.
Finally, transition to blocking the mornings and afternoons. Once you see the value of your focused output, you'll be craving the opportunity to create more time for these results!
Image courtesy of Cal Newport.
Not sure how to take this step? Use technology to help you break up a typical week into blocks. Here's a great example:
Option 4: Create a Daily Mission
TLDR; Zoom out to link work to a mission.
Think of your favorite movie from childhood. The one you watched over and over that had an important impact on you.
The secret sauce wasn't the acting, the setting, or the dialogue.
Turns out that the plot and storyline make the memory stick with you.
You can leverage this power by turning your work (macro and micro) to be part of a broader plot.
- You aren't writing blogs...you're creating an epic novel, chapter by chapter.
- You aren't just making videos...you're documenting the future of how things should be done.
- You aren't just leading a team building a new website...you are creating the best way for people to find, engage, and purchase products and/or services they need.
The bigger you can dream, the more effective you will be with the Mission approach.
The Bottom Line: Don't Be A Prisoner of Practice
There is no one right option, only the option you are using right now.
Your focus and needs will switch naturally over time. What works for you today might not work for you tomorrow...and that's totally okay.
Simply find where you are in the spectrum of ^above^ options and start there.
Be flexible with your options; the real key to staying organized isn't some kind of genetic advantage.
It's just patience.
Best of luck on your journey.