How to Finally Make Peace With Your To-Do List


How to Make Peace With Your To-Do List

The person who’s going to complete all the tasks on your list is not you. It’s some superhuman version of you, who gets all the things done without breaking a sweat. Perhaps the biggest problem and allure of the to-do list is how aspirational it is.

In the early days of iDoneThis, there used to be a to-do task feature. While we decided to focus on helping people harness the benefits of keeping and sharing a done list, we gained some fascinating insight into what really happens when it comes to your to-do list along the way.

Two of the most interesting discoveries we made were how 41% of to-­do items were never finished, while a whopping 85% of dones were unplanned tasks that never started out as to-do’s.

There’s a huge gap between what we hope to get done and what we actually accomplish — and that might just be part of the human condition. The problem is when we let our to-do lists dishearten and demoralize us because we feel we’ve somehow failed. The way to conquer those negative feelings is to look backwards.

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Master Your To-Do Lists

[T]ry picking a stubborn item from your own to-do list and redefining it until it becomes something that actually involves moving one of your limbs… Breaking each task down into its individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that it is in the system.

Tom Stafford, “The Psychology of the To-Do List”, BBC.com.

Discover four more helpful to-do list tips and how to master the art of to-do lists by understanding why they fail.

Making Your To-Do List Work

The Wall Street Journal‘s At Work blog put together a great collection of 10 career and work resolutions for the new year. We can definitely get on board with: Redo Your To-Do List.

Heidi Grant Halvorson explains a particular strategy called if-then planning:

The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when andwhere you will do it, in advance.  The general format of an if-then plan looks like this:

If (or When) ___________ occurs, then I will ________________.

For example:

When it’s 3 p.m. today, then I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that project.

If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I’ll go to the gym before work.

If it’s Tuesday morning, then I will check in with all my direct reports.

This technique is also called implementation intention, a planning strategy that helps automate a desired action with cues and context.

Read the science behind making to-do lists for more details and strategies like implementation intention to help you become a to-do list master!

How to Master the Art of To-Do Lists by Understanding Why They Fail

I don’t like to-do lists but found it odd that I still continue to use them. Is my list-making just a futile exercise or productivity-flavored self-torture?

The to-do list is an inescapable, age-old productivity tool. It is our very human attempt to create order in our disorderly lives and an expression of our ability to impose self-control. Most of us, including to-do list haters, keep one, and so do  63% of professionals, according to a survey released by LinkedIn in May 2012.

Yet to-do lists seem particularly difficult to tame.

At iDoneThis, we used to have a to-do task feature, and we discovered some interesting numbers demonstrating the common struggle to conquer our to-do lists:

  • 41% of to­-do items were never completed.
  • 50% of completed to-­do items are done within a day.
  • 18% of completed to­-do items are done within an hour.
  • 10% of completed to­-do items are done within a minute.
  • 15% of dones started as to-do items.

to-do list stats

In other words:

  • people aren’t that great at completing their to-do tasks;
  • tasks that do get completed are done quickly; and
  • tasks that are reported as done don’t correlate with planned to-do tasks.

The popular to-do list, then, appears to be rather ineffective, and it’s this paradox that may explain the spiky love/hate relationship that people have with to-do lists. Is the to-do list just a blunt instrument to wield in the quest for personal productivity and getting stuff done? Or does the weakness lie deeper in ourselves in our human struggle to impose order and control?

It seemed too facile to chalk up the poor figures to the simple failure of to-do lists and/or humankind, so we wanted to take a closer look into why people aren’t good at completing their to-do lists.

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Stop Worrying, Start Living

I’ve gotten better at the drudgery of real life, but I still suffer from bad habits. I put off difficult tasks, and then I feel guilty about putting off these tasks, and I blow that guilt out of proportion, and then I rub all these bad feelings around my insides like broken glass. I become a worry machine. It is not an overstatement to say that the despair of these tiny, accumulated failures keeps me from truly living, because it creates in me a need to hide from the world. I needed to figure out a way to get right with the world—not because I was going to die soon, but because I probably wasn’t.

Sarah Hepola, on the weight of to-do lists.

The Power of the Done List

Meaty Congrats

The Problem: To-Do Lists Don’t Work for Me.

To-do lists just don’t work for some people.

We may be more right-brained. Perhaps our working styles don’t mesh with more intricate prioritizing or the task list format. Whatever it is, we know that one productivity system does not fit all. 

Plus, a recent study by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller found that detailed planning works when you have one big to-do item, but the longer the list, the less powerful a tool it is to get stuff done.

For those of us who are unmoved by the to-do list (and the arguments of its most fervent disciples), we feel that they loom without spurring action, rebuke without encouragement. They don’t care about our circumstances or our moods. In fact, they don’t care about us at all, sitting there with items unchecked and uncrossed, coldly expectant. And in return, we don’t care about them. To-do lists can’t be effective when they are simultaneously discouraging and easy to ignore.

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The Psychology of To-Do Lists

The always wonderful Maria Popova at Brain Pickings delves into the psychology of to-do lists in her discussion of John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister’s book, Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

She points to the authors’ discussion of the Zeigarnik effect, which explains why our brains continue to nag us about what we leave unfinished. Originally thought to be the mind’s way of making sure we get stuff done, recent research shows that this nagging is to make a specific, doable plan of action to get stuff done.

Fascinating! Have you read Willpower? Let us know what you think!