Productivity and GTD

Why a To-Do List Is Not Enough

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“Checking items off a to-do list doesn’t determine progress; focusing on your priorities is what counts.” ~ Frank Sonnenberg
To do list 2

Today, the to-do list is probably the simplest and most used tool by those who try to put some order in their daily activity. Basically, it is just a list of things to do, usually on the same day or in a short period of time, that is somehow ordered by priorities.

To-do lists come from the world of time management. They were invented at the beginning of the last century to improve the productivity of people whose daily work was well defined and, therefore, could dedicate themselves to the tasks of the list, one after the other, without being interrupted.

We love these lists for several reasons. The main one is simplicity. A simple paper where we point out what needs to be done and check off what is already done, can it be simpler? In addition, they provide us some structure and help lessen the anxiety that causes chaos. They even provoke addiction, due to the Zeigarnik effect and that we feel great good every time we eliminate an element from the list.

But having psychologically a good predisposition to use lists does not mean that a simple to-do list is the best way to be organized.

Today, this kind of performance is almost always impossible. Job responsibilities are becoming increasingly blurred, the variety of tasks to get done is much higher and we are subject to constant interruptions, mainly due to mobile phones and email.

In these times, where responsibilities at work are increasingly diffuse, the variety of tasks to get done is much higher, and we are subject to constant interruptions mainly due to mobile phones and email — among other things — a to-do list is not precisely the best method to help you manage your attention effectively.

There are a number of basic reasons why a simple to do list—written on paper or entered in your computer’s calendar—is often not enough:

  • They are not flexible. Changing priorities cannot be correctly handled due to the speed at which they happen and the complexity of the factors that determine them. A modern self-management system should allow you to make the best decisions based on the options available at any given time.
  • They are incomplete. They only allow you to manage a very small portion of your reality.
  • They mix information of different nature. These lists contain all kinds of stuff you can capture: actions, results, delegated tasks, information, ideas, etc. Mixing such diverse elements into one list goes against the meaning of organizing.
  • They lack context. When is the best time to do this task? What tools do I need? Does anyone else have to intervene? Where is the support material, if the task is complex?
  • They focus on the urgent. Often, the priority we give to each task depends more on its urgency than on its importance, which makes these lists impose a reactive way of life. An interesting article on this subject is Elisabeth Hendrickson’s The Tyranny of the To Do List.
  • They lack perspective. To do lists answer to the question “What do I have to do today?” which eliminate a broader vision of our long-term goals (“What do I want to do in my life?”).
  • They are time-consuming. According to a study by Jared Sandberg for The Wall Street Journal (Though Time-Consuming, To-Do Lists Are a Way of Life), 30% of people who use to-do lists spend more time managing their lists than doing what’s on them.

Of course, having a to-do list is much better than nothing, but are they really enough to manage your day-to-day life efficiently?

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