Why To-Do Lists Don't Work

by Dean Palibroda in


The to-do list is the poster boy of organization and productivity. 

It's simple. It's easy. And it's supposedly effective. There's only one problem... 


Let's say you've been slacking off for the past couple weeks. You can't keep track of all the tasks on your plate. So, you make a list to keep as a constant reminder. 

Pay the rent, pick up dry cleaning, vacuum, wash your car, finish that proposal for work, go to the gym... 

You leave it on your fridge, or tab it into an app on your phone. All set, right? 

Nope not in reality. I've fallen into that trap before. What really happens to that list after a few days? 

Right - you lose it, forget about it or ignore it. 

That's because it's so easy to make excuses for not checking items off your to-do list. There's no sense of urgency. 

Great, you managed to hit the gym and pay your bills on time... but washing your car can wait until tomorrow, right? 

We need to add the element of time. We have to create urgency. 

Why do you make sure to pay your car payments and electricity bills on time? 

Because those tasks are associated with a date (and ignoring those dates has negative consequences). 

Attached a fixed time to a task marks the difference between a hard and soft deadline. Soft deadlines refers to a day and a hard deadline adds a time. 

Imagine if you were penalized for not going to the gym 3 days a week. What if a trainer came to slap you with a late fee for not showing up? You'd get your ass in there early, that's what. 

What eventually happens if you solely use to-do lists is that you feel good by checking off your big ticket, time-sensitive items... but all the small tasks pile up until they become unmanageable. 

The solution is simple. Don't ditch lists; put them in a format that works for you. 

We do that by assigning both a level of priority and a deadline to each item. It's important to make lists that cover all your necessities, but don't get bogged down in the minutiae. Leave off "take a shower" for example. 

From my experience a calendar is the best way to manage tasks. 

If you're wondering how a calendar is any better than a basic to-do list, imagine looking back at the past week on a calendar and seeing the following tasks left unfinished: 

  • Sunday: Laundry, mow lawn;
  • Tuesday, at 4 pm: Run 2 miles; 
  • Thursday: Wash car; 
  • Friday, at 10 am: Write a blog post. 

Now imagine the same tasks without the days or dates. 

  • Laundry;
  • Mow lawn;
  • Run;
  • Wash car;
  • Write blog post. 

It's meaningless. You can just keep scratching out or changing the date on a to-do list. 

Or course no one is going to punish you for slacking off - the "consequence" is looking back at days and weeks past and seeing evidence that you either did or didn't complete your goals. 

By holding yourself accountable, you can form a routine to better utilize your time. 

You might work better by spreading out your tasks all throughout the week. Or you could batch related tasks during certain days. 

Either way, setting hard deadlines for your life is one of the best ways I've found to systematically visualize your tasks and take action.