Why You Should Quit Your To-Do List For Good

The cult of productivity is a dominant one these days, a secular religion that threatens to pull all educated, "knowledge workers" into its righteous path. Has anyone amongst us not clicked through article after article preaching different ways to make yourself more productive, all the while feeling a strange mix of shame and hope? Productivity, it has been often thought, begins with identifying those things which must be done, and gathering them in writing, i.e. the "to-do list." By focusing on the to-do list, we can allegedly achieve more. But I quit using a to-do list, and — spoiler! — nothing bad happened. Here's why you should too.

When I still used a to-do list, I was constantly overwhelmed by its magnitude, or distracted by keeping it organized. When I felt guilty for not being productive enough, I'd procrastinate and deflect the real issue by trying new to-do list apps. Then, once everything on my to-do list was down in writing, I'd promptly avoid looking at it — which stressed me out more than possibly forgetting something. Eventually, I'd feel guilty, and then go back to it again, over and over. In other words, my relationship with the to-do list was hardly a healthy one.

Perhaps I was keeping a to-do list the "wrong" way. That's certainly possible, I admit it. But how much work should it take to get a productivity system right? At what point is that a fault of the system, and not of its user? There sure are a bunch of Getting Things Done (GTD) aficionados out there, but I've read the book and I still don't fully understand how the method is supposed to work in the first place. And anyways, I'm not interested in any productivity system that's more like a cult, so thanks but no thanks to that one.

Whatever kind you're trying to keep, the main problem with to-do lists is that they encourage you to mix everything up: goals, shopping items, wish lists, things you can't take action on right away, huge projects, and more. Then looking at the thing and making heads or tails of it is a huge cognitive burden, and you feel rewarded for checking off items that weren't really important, or that you weren't about to forget anyways. Attempting to keep multiple lists to separate these items also doesn't make sense, because the categories of items are so diverse (short-term/long-term, personal/work, high importance/low importance). Classifying the to-do list items can easily consume more energy than it's ultimately worth — and then you've got five lists to manage instead of one.

I don't suggest ditching your calendar, though. With just a little setup, you can keep track of all your events, receive notifications, and quickly glance back to see where your time went in the past. Anything with a firm deadline should obviously go in the calendar, with appropriate notifications in advance (seven days, three days, one hour, etc). Blocking out time on your calendar for activities — including leisure ones, and even sleep — helps you to remain realistic regarding your commitments. That well-kept calendar helps you to see where your time is really going, and to see whether your time use lines up with your values. And the calendar is not so overwhelming as an overflowing to-do list, because you can consider just one day or week at a time.

I'm also not suggesting that you should abandon your goals. Writing down goals in some fashion may help you to achieve them. But breaking them up into manageable chunks and giving those items a good home on each Sunday or each first or last day of the month will keep you more accountable in the medium- and long-run than writing a yearly list... and then never looking at it again. You'll get a feel for the passing of time, and a feel for how many goal-related tasks you can manage to fit into a genuinely productive week.

Put your miscellaneous former to-do list items where they make sense in context: use an email tool like Boomerang to resurface emails you need to deal with later. Turn on "credit card bill due" notifications on your phone if you also pay them via an app (or better yet, just automate it). It's not very high-tech, but there's nothing wrong with a physical grocery list on the fridge, if that works for you.

You just aren't obligated to make sacrifices to the productivity gods in the form of to-do list lines and checkmarks. Make sure your calendar is up to date, and then temporarily quit your to-do list — I bet nothing bad will happen at all. In fact, kissing your long, daunting, centralized but runaway to-do list goodbye may be just the ticket to stress-free productivity that you really needed.

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