Is your to-do list making you unproductive?
Could you be misusing your to-do list? Photo: Michael Matisse
It's assumed that if you are the type of person who makes lists, you are organised and on top of your work.
There is an expectation that you know what you have to do and when you are going to do it. But is this true? Are to-do lists the pinnacle of personal effectiveness or are they holding you back?
I'm a prolific list writer. With lists for what I need to do at work, in the garage, in my house, updates to my wardrobe, financials that need addressing, the list goes on and on. I can even remember waiting to go into a movie in Hobart years ago and jotting down a to-do list with tasks on it that I'd already completed, just so I felt good — but that's another story for another day.
There is evidence to indicate that writing lists for all the different compartments of your life creates more of a logical order in your brain and can help people feel calmer and less scattered, but it wasn't until a few years ago, when Christie, my business partner at The Performance Clinic, pointed out that my daily to-do list was becoming a carbon copy most days and that I wasn't actually getting a lot of it to-done.
So I decided to investigate whether lists do make you more productive. And guess what? There's definitely a chance you could be misusing your to-do list, just as I was. Here's why:
1. Lists can become overwhelming
According to studies in 2000 by US researchers Iyengar and Lepper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, our brains can only deal with seven choices before we become overwhelmed. Their experiments were conducted in the field and in laboratory settings and indicated that individuals are more likely to buy gourmet jams or chocolates when their choices are limited to six, rather than having many more options available.
Now, I'm going to take a bet that the to-do list you've written today has a lot more than seven items on it. When we're faced with too many options, we're much more likely to do the opposite of what we need to do. We become overwhelmed (even comatose) and start surfing the web, calling friends or processing emails rather than putting our heads down and getting to work.
2. Lists don't allow for time allocation
Knowing what you have to do is great, but you also need to know how much time it's going to take you to complete each task. This was a big discovery for me. Most to-do lists aren't written with this element in mind and we just end up with a long line of items chunked together with no idea of how long each one will take. Your to-do list might contain a list of items that will take you 24 minutes to complete, 24-hours, or it could be 24 days.
3. Lists don't provide context
Writing a to-do list is not a surefire way to start writing your "done" list. This is because typical to-do lists do not show your planner or schedule at the same time or indicate when you have time to complete the item and how important it is in relation to the rest of the project/s you are working on.
So while to-do lists are useful for helping get thoughts out of your head and on to paper, there are better ways to plan your day so you can be more productive and effective.
Here are five tips to supercharge your daily planning:
1. Make it a habit
Like anything else in life, if you want to become good at something that doesn't come naturally, you need to practise and practise and practise. For productivity tactics, this would be committing to a daily planning method — every single day. Make it part of your daily routine when you arrive at work each morning or before you go home at the end of the day. If you need more inspiration to plan, find a great place in the morning and map out your plan in the beautiful outdoors.
2. Think like an athlete
I know, I know, another sporting reference — but the truth is athletes follow a proven goal setting process. Professional athletes and sporting teams start with a clear plan of what they are aiming for — say, an Olympics, national championships or state titles, and then they work backwards, or reverse engineer the goal-setting process.
When I moved into the corporate world it seemed like a no-brainer to bring these planning habits with me. I'd set a bigger goal, such as building a business, and then work backwards to see what I had to do every month, week and day to achieve that goal. Try adopting the same process with your daily planning. Set yourself an overarching, inspiring goal and then allocate the smaller, milestone steps that you need to make to achieve that goal.
3. Be both outcome and task driven
Sound complicated? Don't worry, it's easy. While you're writing your to-do list, think about the one thing that you would like to get done that day or week. Maybe it's finishing a proposal for a potential client, or completing a presentation for an upcoming meeting. Write down specifically what you need to do to get that outcome done, then estimate how long it will take you to complete each task. This way you know what you have to do and how long it's going to take.
If you're anything like most of my clients (or me), there is no way you will ever achieve everything you're asked to do. We're always busy and have way more on our plate than we can ever hope to accomplish. For this reason, you need to learn the art of prioritisation. Ask yourself, is it more important to spend two hours writing a draft of a proposal that is due tomorrow, or to spend half the day working on a presentation that is due in a month?
In the corporate world, sh*t happens and it really is just a fact of life that we have to deal with it. No matter how good your daily planning is, it's highly likely that something (an interruption, an emergency, a bushfire of some sort) will arise to prevent you from getting all of your work done. For this reason, I recommend recalibrating a few times a day to ensure that what you are working on is still relevant and is the best use of your time.
What do you think? How do you plan for each day?