It’s September, which for many of us means we embark on a bit of a reset after a summer of fun and, perhaps, excess. Habits have slipped, we feel like we need to get on top of things. What do we do? We make a long to-do list, guaranteed to get us back on track and make us our best selves again.

To-do lists are probably the most ubiquitously used organisational tool. They seem straightforward, clearly we do need to keep track of what we’re aiming to achieve at any given time and they give us a sense of control.  But here’s the rub. For most people, to-do lists don’t work very well, if at all.

They can make us stressed and hold us back from being our most productive selves. Here’s why:

  1. To-Do Lists Are Stressful: When we first make our list at the start of the day/week/month, we may feel a sense of control. However, as we inevitably get distracted, things get added to it and we don’t get through it, it can create a huge amount of stress and even panic. It becomes a burden and instead of focusing on each task, all we’re thinking about is the mountain of other tasks we need to get to, which in turn slows us down even more.

  1. They’re Never-ending: There are ALWAYS going to be things to do, particularly if you favour one to-do list that includes life admin as well as work. If you take this approach, particularly if you’re self-employed and especially if you have children, it means you’re unlikely to ever give yourself time for self-care. Eventually you burn out and the quality of your work massively drops. As you’ll know if you’ve read our post on wellbeing as a must, this doesn’t benefit anyone. 

  1. They Don’t Help Us Prioritise: Ticking off items on a to-do list feels very satisfying. As such, we often end up tackling small, easy tasks first and pushing meatier, more important tasks back. We then end up doing these more complex tasks when we’re tired, which then takes us longer. 

How can I stay on top

If I’m scrapping my to-do list?

Personally, I like to have one “get around to” list each for work and life separately that I keep out of sight but use to jot non-urgent tasks down as they occur to me.  It’s the equivalent of using the parking lot system in a workshop.  I then turn to these lists when I have a quiet moment.  Day-to-day, we recommend timeboxing for almost everyone in an office-based job as a way to scrap the to-do list and prevent our inbox from becoming a secondary, even more stressful to-do list. This approach is a much more effective tool for prioritisation and gives you a far greater sense of control. 

If you don’t feel like timeboxing works for you, for instance if you work in a very reactive role, try to create at least two lists sorted by urgency.  Only keep your ‘urgent’ list visible, and limit the number of tasks on it to three. Whilst this isn’t ideal, it will help you focus and remove some of that sense of to-do list panic. 

If you’re interested in finding out more, we cover this in depth in our productivity training modules or you can book a free 30 minute consultation right now to discuss any productivity challenges you and your team are facing.