Stop Using To-Do Lists – They’re Guilt Trips From Hell

Alternatives for to-do lists

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Most of us use or used to-do lists to reduce stress levels and anxiety. To-do lists help us with applying structure and offloading tasks from our heads to paper.

However, once the 60 or so tasks are on paper, then what? We never finish them and therefore, to-do lists are basically guilt trips. Moreover, to-do lists prevent us from properly prioritizing the tasks.

But what are the alternatives?

5 problems with using to-do lists

To-do lists are great tools to get rid anxiety and reduce stress on the short run. However, there are many fundamental problems with to-do lists that make the tool counterproductive on the mid and long run.

Daniel Markovitz mentions 5 of these problems in an article on the Harvard Business Review website:

  1. Paradox of choice: usually to-do lists are quite long, say 60 items. However, our brains can only properly handle about 7 choices without us getting overwhelmed. Once we get overwhelmed, we switch to default behaviors, such as replying to emails and just ticking off the first unimportant item from our to-do lists.
  2. Heterogeneous complexity: On to-do lists there will be simple tasks that only require us about 5 minutes, and more complex tasks which will take us an hour. We inadvertently will be inclined to finish the 5 minute task, because we can then tick it of our list. When we reach our goal, our brains release dopamine. Dopamine is a success hormone, which makes us feel good on the short run.
  3. Heterogeneous priority: to-do lists will not make distinction in what is important, but not urgent, and vice versa. The consequence is that we will focus on the urgent first and then not having enough time for the important task once it is due.
  4. Lack of context: to-do lists do not put the tasks in context. Should you be working overtime to finish the tasks or not? With this tool we do not look at the feasibility of finishing all the tasks. The question we don’t ask ourselves is: is it even possible to finish these to-do lists?
  5. Lack of commitment devices: we write the tasks down and then usually finish them in random order. However, are these tasks also aligned with short and long term targets of you and your company? The tasks need to be aligned with hard commitments that you have or that you need to make.

Alternatives for using to-do lists

I’ve used to-do lists in the past to try and apply some structure in my day-to-day work. My conclusion is that the to-do lists do not suffice in the increasingly complex business environments most of us face today.

In a dynamic environment, your to-do list will change almost every hour. Why put in the work to maintain it, then? I found it made me less flexible, as I wanted to finish my list. This is lost time and lost energy.

Besides, if you see to-do lists as technology, it’s already quite outdated, isn’t it?

If you use your email application in the right way, you can use this in various ways as your to-do list. As you have to manage your inbox and calendar anyway, why repurpose the application to also use it as a to-do list?

Tips for using your email application as your to-do list

To schedule your tasks, you need to distinguish between important and routine tasks. I know, this is a high-over approach, but please bear with me.

Use these two categories to approach your inbox as a to-do list as follows:

  • Important tasks: these are tasks that directly align with your targets. Make sure to schedule these in your calendar. By doing this, you’ll automatically also assign a time-slot to work on these tasks.

  • Routine tasks / answering questions from colleagues: when a colleague asks you a question, this is also a way for that person to free space in his/her memory and put it into yours. This increases your “burden”. This makes sense, as we need to help each other out.

    However, you need to remember that it is their problem, not yours. Therefore, if the question is unclear, ask a question to clarify. This way, the email is removed from your to-do list and it is the responsibility of your colleague again.

    Also, you can view the emails as items in your to-do list. No need to copy them in a separate to-do list: your inbox already serves as a to-do list. Prioritize this list automatically: Make sure to use email rules to direct emails from your manager(s) to the folder “priority”.

    Start with answering these emails first. Then move on to emails from your team members. Make a third and final folder for important stakeholders. Other emails you answer last. Don’t worry if you forget these, people will find you if it’s really important.

    For more tips, also make sure to read this post.

Tips for managing day-to-day work and long term goals

The ideal workday

We get overwhelmed if we have more than 7 alternatives. Therefore, my ideal work day is scheduled in such a way, that I start with working on a difficult task that is also related to one of my targets. I do this because I can think most clearly in the morning. Later in the afternoon, I finish less important tasks like answering emails etc. Of course, this will not work out like this each day, but keeping this picture in mind helps me to at least have a couple of these days each week.

When it’s really busy, I ask myself: “What do I need to finish today to be able to leave at a reasonable time?”. This helps to manage my stress levels.

Plan monthly evaluations of your targets and the required to-do’s

Make sure to periodically plan moments to reflect upon your tasks and if you’re doing the right things. Are you still on track to achieve your targets? Do you still have sufficient time to achieve all your targets?

This exercise is also important to do with your team and your manager. This way, you can validate if you’re still working on the right things and if you can leverage of each other’s work.

That’s it for this week. If you liked it, make sure to hit the Facebook button and share it on social media.

If you have any more tips, I’d love you to include them in the comments below!

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