Professional Development

Your to do list is failing you

I am a compulsive list maker. I’ve come to accept that if I’m going to get anything substantial done, I have to make a to do list first. I’ll admit that a big reason for my list making habit is because I really enjoy getting to cross things off once they’re complete. I’ve even caught myself adding something to a list after I’ve already done it… just so I can cross it off. Alright – that part is a little embarrassing, but that’s full disclosure for you.

I’ve always been a firm believer in the practice of making lists to get stuff done, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come without some drawbacks. Millions of us, myself included, are all desperately figuring out how to work from home for the foreseeable future (thanks to the virus that shall not be named). You know what hasn’t helped me? Making lists. Frankly, that practice has done just about the opposite in fighting my mental fatigue.

To do lists are great…to an extent

Turns out I’m not a weirdo. There’s a whole lot of psychology behind list-making behavior and why people find so much fulfillment from making them. Making a list allows you to free up space in your brain because you’ve noted that “to do” item somewhere. The physical nature of actually writing it out also helps you to solidify that thought into existence. You gain a little bit of peace from knowing it won’t accidentally disappear from your thoughts. For those of us that are visual learners, it helps us prioritize once we can see all those items in the same space.

Here’s where to do lists can become dangerous

It’s unfortunately a little bit too easy for most of us to get the satisfaction that we crave from making our list, and that’s where we stop. The act of planning (i.e. list making) feels just as good as completing an action. Don’t pretend you haven’t experienced that before. We’ve all sat in a conference room brainstorming ideas for a new issue at work. Your team is working diligently to come up with what the next step should be. Then, you have your light bulb moment. The perfect solution. You feel so accomplished and everyone is hyped up that a plan has been laid out. But then this triumphant planning needs to be followed by action and already you’ve started to realize your energy is waning and mental fatigue is creeping in.

So what do you do? You add those new tasks to your to do list. But, you keep adding things to your list, chasing after that feeling of satisfaction until you’ve got a list a mile long. Now even thinking about your list makes you feel exhausted. And if you’re working from home like millions of other people right now, I bet your home and work lists have started to blur together creating a monster list.

What’s an alternative?

Follow the flow while you work, whether it’s on your list or not. Give yourself the space and flexibility to follow your work where it takes you. This means you’ll probably end up doing things that weren’t on your list. But it also means you’ll likely work on something through to its entirety, cutting out the need for you to add a bunch of smaller things to your list. 

I’ll be honest, this type of work flow can be intimidating for me – it makes me feel like I’m missing something, or perhaps I should be prioritizing something else that has been sitting on my list for too long. In reality, when I let myself operate this way, I end up getting a lot done. If I’m honest, I get way more done than if I had just followed my list.

When your to do list goes out the window

Take this past weekend for example. I set out to clean up my home-office closet. It had been on my list for a while, and now that we’re all spending so much time at home, it made sense to finally tackle that to do item. As I was making my keep and throw away piles, I noticed that the sliding closet doors were hanging crooked. So I pulled them off and adjusted the track. That led to me noticing that the door paint was pretty shoddy, and could use a touch up coat. So, I painted them. While that paint was drying, I had enough time to realize I should just go ahead and patch all those old nail holes in the walls. So, I spackled away… then a day later I had finished up repainting the whole room. 72 hours after this whole project started, I had done the same thing to a second room as well. 

What started out as organizing a closet, turned into a full two-room renovation. I know – it sounds crazy. It was crazy. But I was in the zone. That’s what following the flow allows you to do. When you allow yourself to be fully immersed in your task and allow your work to direct you, you can get an insane amount done. That would have never happened if I was just following my “to do” list.  After all that, I didn’t have an ounce of mental fatigue. I felt invigorated. My home-office looks damn good, and I’m set up better than ever to be productive in that space.

There’s no silver bullet tool

There’s nothing wrong with lists. They’re an effective tool, and I know I’ll keep making lists until the day I die. Maybe you’re not a compulsive list maker like me. Whatever your crutch is though, make sure you know where it falls short. Know how it contributes to and detracts from your productivity. Be honest. When you realize those tools aren’t cutting it, quit being stubborn and pick another one. 

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  • James Yogi

    Funny how applicable this is to me although I’ve never read anything about it. I spent years making a daily to do, goals, and priorities list. My wife and management team consistently laughed at how I lead and managed an operation from a 99 cent composition book. I ended up having the last laugh less than a year later, when i found them carrying their own composition book into every meeting. Awesome article – thanks for connecting the dots between practical use and psychological satisfaction!

    • Audra Kershner

      Thank you for reading! So glad you found a connection with this topic. Sounds like you were a good influence in your work and personal circles. And no shame in a 99 cent book – I use those too!