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. Don’t be one of them and master the to-do list by completing the tasks and reading about them.
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.
The Fast Creep of Unplanned Tasks
One of the biggest issues with to-do lists is that they don’t account for all the moles. Let me explain. This is what generally happens — you stride into work with your shiny to-do list, ready to take on the world, but then up pops a task. Maybe it’s an impromptu meeting with your team. Oh, here’s another — an email from a client who insists that you must take care of something. It’s urgent.
Despite your well-intentioned to-do list, the work day can be like that old arcade game, Whack-A-Mole — trying to get to your priorities while frantically beating down all the tasks that pop up.
When LinkedIn took a survey of professionals across the world, they found that only 11% of people said they finished everything on their daily task list. The biggest culprit?
Survey respondents pointed to unplanned tasks (such as unscheduled phone calls, emails and meetings) as primary cause for not completing all items on their to-do lists.
It makes sense that you can’t get to everything on your list when all these new tasks barge in the front door, demanding your attention. Some of them are important, some are not. But you end up feeling guilty and unproductive even while you’ve been working all day — all because you haven’t gotten to what you set out to do.
When Buffer founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne ran into this problem, he explained that he was often left with the feeling that unplanned tasks didn’t “count.” So he gains a clearer perspective when he keeps a done list, an “account of progress” of what he got done that day, no matter whether it started on a list or not. The result is a powerful feeling of productivity and motivation.
Filling in Context Gives You More Control
But what to do about those unplanned tasks? Having to keep careful watch as you go throughout the day to hack away at what’s going to pop up during the day is an exhausting defensive position to be in all the time.
Instead, it’s more valuable to understand what has led you to this point. Why? When you feel like you have more control over how you spend your time, you become happier. So it’s important to gain a realistic sense of what your daily or weekly to-do list should look like.
What the to-do list lacks is context. At best, items get filed under different categories — but the list is often primly neutral, your “get more light bulbs” reminder rubbing elbows with that big work presentation you’re giving in a month. More specifically, to-do lists resolutely faces forward, looking into the future. Most task management is narrowly prospective, ignoring your history of how you work, your habits, what making progress and dealing with setbacks look like.
The past is full of feedback, the kind of valuable information that you can use to make a better plan on how to proceed and prioritize. Instead, to-do lists are like your Netflix queue — full of the fancy documentaries and award-winning dramas you’ve been meaning to get to. Your starting point should be the Netflix suggestions, which are based on your previous history.
When you possess a fuller context of history and past behavior —which you can gain by regular self-reflection, review, and keeping a done list — you arrive on the firmer ground provided by perspective.
No longer are you hacking away, willy-nilly, at whatever comes your way. Now you can tell whether or not you’re making progress on the wrong things, or your time is imbalanced between work defined by other people as compared to yourself. Whether it is proactive or reactive work, you know better what to say “yes” or “no” to, because you have a rationale and intentionality about correcting your course.
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Now it’s not a big deal if only 41% of your to-do list tasks get accomplished if you’ve crossed out the more important things or you’ve bypassed other tasks to get to more significant priorities — or that what you got done never started out on any list, if it means what you’re accomplishing is important.
Thread the needle between past behavior and the future goals using your very own data, with questions such as these:
- What productivity setbacks did you face last week that you can improve this week?
- What lessons did you learn today that you can apply going forward?
- When did you schedule your creative, maker’s work yesterday and can that be improved upon today?
Self-reflection and review improves how you learn from experience, and when you incorporate a done list to accompany your to-do list, you’ll create a feeling of productivity and progress that keeps you motivated and improving every day.