Master The Art Of The To-Do List By Understanding How They Fail

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 per cent of professionals, according to a LinkedIn survey released earlier this year. And yet to-do lists seem particularly difficult to tame. iDoneThis’ Janet Choi explains why to-do lists fail, and how to use it to your advantage.

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.

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.

Problem 1: Too Many To-Dos

First of all, most of us put way too much stuff on our lists. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, report in their book that one person typically has at least 150 different tasks at a time, and that an executive’s to-do list for a single Monday could take more than a week to finish. Sounds like a setup for failure.

Overstuffing our lists causes a continuous thrum of worry in our head, and this constant disquiet has negative effects in tackling the very tasks that are so worrying. As described in Willpower, psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King discovered that the worry that results from having too many conflicting goals causes our productivity as well as our physical and mental health to suffer. [clear]

So the to-do list gives and takes. We have so much to tackle, and a to-do list helps us remember everything. At the same time, it’s a nagging tool that can induce unhealthy and disarming anxiety. Do the cons of a to-do list outweigh the pros if we’re not ultimately getting everything done?

Problem 2: How We’re Making To-Do Lists

Zooming into the true purpose of to-do list, we discover that a significant problem is that we’re just not good how to construct our to-do lists. It’s not as simple as it looks. The to-do list is an external memory aid or a reminder outside of your head, which nudges you about all the stuff you mean to do. Right, you knew that. What’s surprising about the research recounted in Willpower is that the to-do list’s badgering isn’t for you to actually get stuff done!

That intrusive pestering from uncompleted tasks and unmet goals hanging around in your mind is known as the Zeigarnik effect. The logical response to “cure” the Zeigarnik effect would be to finish the tasks and meet the goals. However, studies by Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo [PDF] found that the Zeigarnik effect was the unconscious “asking the conscious mind to make a plan”, as opposed to asking the conscious mind to get off its butt to complete some tasks.

In one of these studies, a group of students was instructed to think about an important final exam while another group was told to make a specific study plan with details of what they would do, where and when. (Nobody actually studied during the experiment.) When given word fragments to complete, the students who had been told merely to think about the upcoming test filled in exam-related words, while the study-plan group did not. Even though the planners had in effect spent more time thinking about their task, with no progress made on the task itself, as Baumeister and Tierney explain, “their minds had apparently been cleared by the act of writing down a plan“.

It turns out to-do lists aren’t as useful when you conceive them as just a string tied around your finger. Many of us aren’t any good at formulating the tasks on the list, failing to think through steps and plans, so that when we’re faced with too many tasks and too few suggestions on how to proceed, we don’t complete tasks. Remember that the to-do list string around your finger is for you to make better plans using the list.

Problem 3: We Give Ourselves Too Much Time

It makes sense, then, that our stats show that when people did complete tasks, they were done quickly. When goals are broken out into actionable steps, it takes less effort, energy and time to cross those smaller tasks off the list. [clear]

Add to our lack of planning a tendency to be lenient on ourselves about deadlines, up goes the chances that we’ll never finish a task. As many fellow procrastinators know, the more time you give yourself to finish something, the less likely it is that you will finish in that timeframe. For example, behavioural economist Dan Ariely [PDF] found that students who had longer to finish three papers performed worse than those who had externally-imposed or self-imposed deadlines that were evenly spaced and earlier.

Problem 4: The Future is Full of Unknowns, Interruptions and Change

Only 15 per cent of our members’ dones started out as to-dos. That’s a staggeringly small correlation.

Dones don’t match up with to-do tasks when we’re not great at formulating to-do list tasks to begin with. If, as discussed above, we don’t take the time to plan out specific actions for general goals or tasks, but do take some forward steps, those steps won’t correlate with the original task. You can’t sort-of check off a task as done.

Plus, we can’t predict the many interruptions that happen in our day. The LinkedIn survey reported that the most common reason for failure to get through a to-do list was unplanned tasks, such as unscheduled calls, emails and meetings. Things pop up in our lives, in and out of the office, little and big fires to be put out — the kids had to be taken to school when they missed the bus; the deal fell through; this coworker is never going to stop talking; same coworker screwed up the budget and now I have to fix it; this internet is so much more interesting than tasks A through Z right now. Sometimes the to-do list just can’t handle the changes that crop up because we can’t tell the future.

Why we got rid of our to-do feature

We tried to incorporate a to-do feature because people told us they wanted to plan their day. We let the feature go, because the main focus of our service here at iDoneThis is dones and how motivating, revealing and useful recording those dones are. We saw how we weren’t in the business (at least not yet) of helping people change their initial behaviour, leading them to better construct their to-do lists, put less items on them, give themselves shorter deadlines, or give them the power of a crystal ball. But we still believe that to-do lists are helpful and that dones help balance out the to-do list’s problems and shortcomings. To-dos and dones are two sides of the same productivity coin.

Ways to improve your to-do list-making

Make more specific, actionable plans. Make it easier for you to get to done by spending some time thinking about what that journey will look like. If I am reminded by my list to do some general task like “write blog post” instead of something specific like “research and brainstorm some ideas for blog post about to-do lists”, I’ll be much less likely to reach the intended goal.

At the same time, don’t micromanage your tasks, or you’ll feel locked in and unable to make adjustments and respond to things that come up. Use your dones as a reference to make better, more responsive plans.

Use implementation intentions in your planning. An implementation intention is a planning strategy that helps automate a desired action. You plan out an if-then process, where you use a certain situation to lead to a desired response. Setting out in advance some specifics of when and where forms the “if-component” of the implementation intention, and the specifics of how forms the “then-component”. In effect, you’re the director in the play of your life, giving the cue to act a certain way.

Give yourself earlier deadlines. Dan Ariely found in his study that even when earlier deadlines were self-imposed, students performed better than those who had later deadlines.

Prioritise. Look at those 150 tasks you have to do and pick the most important, pressing or interesting ones to work on, big and small. It’s easier to focus on five things and get them out of the way than running away from a towering mountain of DO THIS NOW!

Ease up and pat yourself on the back. Since our minds can get overloaded to the point of distraction, forgive yourself for not getting to 150 tasks. Be realistic about what you can do in a day.

Remember that interruptions will pop up and accomplishments don’t always start out as to-dos. You are probably getting a lot of stuff done that you’re not giving yourself credit for. So record and celebrate your dones, and let that motivation push you to tackle the next day or week’s tasks.

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

Janet Choi is a writer and editor who helps keep the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.

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