To-Do Lists Are Outdated And Cause More Problems Than They Solve

Business Insider

I rather used to hate to-do lists but found it odd that I still continued to use them. Was my half-hearted exercise in list-making just a futile exercise or productivity-flavored self-torture?

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 percent of professionals, according to a survey released by LinkedIn in May 2012.

Yet to-do lists seem particularly difficult to tame. 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 percent of to­-do items were never completed.

  • 50 percent of completed to-­do items are done within a day.

  • 18 percent of completed to­-do items are done within an hour.

  • 10 percent of completed to­-do items are done within a minute.

  • 15 percent 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-Do’s

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 set-up 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.

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.

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, behavioral 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% of our members’ dones started out as to-do’s. 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, e-mails, 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 behavior, 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-do’s and dones are two sides of the same productivity coin. 

That said, here are some 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.

Prioritize. 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 5 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-do’s. 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.

NOW READ: Why Shopify Crowdsources Employee Bonuses

More From Business Insider


View Comments (0)

Recommended for You

  • Tycoon buys 30 Rolls-Royces for Macau hotel

    A Hong Kong tycoon has placed the biggest ever order for Rolls-Royce cars, agreeing to buy 30 Phantoms to chauffeur guests at a luxury resort he's building in the global gambling capital of Macau. Stephen Hung's $20 million purchase surpasses the 14 Phantoms bought by Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel in…

    Associated Press
  • Tired of Living Paycheck to Paycheck?

    New website reveals how to save $1,000's when you're living paycheck to paycheck. See exactly how.

    AdChoices Media ForceSponsored
  • Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia

    Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia MOSCOW (AP) — The arrest of a Russian telecoms and oil tycoon has sent shock waves through the country's business community, with some fearing a return to the dark days of a decade ago, when the Kremlin asserted its power by imprisoning the country's…

    Associated Press
  • Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks

    Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks While investors gear up for Alibaba Group 's (BABA) hotly anticipated initial public offering, don't forget about other Chinese stocks that are worth keeping an eye on. Today's Young Guns Screen of

    Investor's Business Daily
  • As Fed takes baby steps, Cramer's trick for profit

    In turn, Cramer says making money in the market, involves looking at the environment through the lens of the Fed. "The trick is to remember that they speak for the common person," Cramer said. "The Fed wants the common person to make money." With that backdrop always in mind, Cramer says it becomes…

  • "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savings

    "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savingsBy the time she hit her late 40s, Toni Eugenia wasn’t sure she would ever be able to retire. Eugenia, 56, a pharmacy technician who lived in Houston, was nearly $200,000 in debt and

    Yahoo Finance
  • CNBC Anchor Calls Out Fed-Hater Bill Fleckenstein In Startling Shouting Match

    CNBC Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital appeared on CNBC's Futures Now program on Tuesday. Futures Now host Jackie DeAngelis came out swinging, asking Fleckenstein right at the top if he was willing to admit that he had misunderstood monetary policy. Sounding taken aback, Fleckenstein…

    Business Insider
  • Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court

    Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court CHICAGO (AP) — Federal prosecutors seeking to put the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies in prison for hiding millions in Swiss bank accounts told appellate court judges Wednesday that the toymaker's sentence of probation threatens to erode the…

    Associated Press
  • Best Womens Wrinkle Creams 2014

    Mom reveals simple wrinkle solution that has researchers very excited. Try this free solution today to look and feel years younger.

  • Apple to unveil new iPads, operating system on Oct. 21 : report

    The company plans to unveil the sixth generation of its iPad and the third edition of the iPad mini, as well as its operating system OS X Yosemite, which has undergone a complete visual overhaul, the Internet news website said. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment. The iPad is…

  • Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks

    Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks Gilead Sciences (GILD) shares are backsliding Wednesday on news that the patient drop-out rate for hepatitis C drug Sovaldi is quadruple that of clinical trials. In addition, the biotech's Phase 2 study results

    Investor's Business Daily
  • Play

    Citi, Bank of America Offer Discounted Mortgages

    Citigroup and Bank of America will offer mortgages at discounted interest rates to help borrowers with low incomes or subprime credit. AnnaMaria Andriotis joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty.

    WSJ Live
  • Margaritaville casino owners seek bankruptcy

    The owner of Biloxi's Margaritaville casino has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, only hours before a hearing where the landlord aimed to seize the property. The filing by MVB Holding LLC in U.S. Don Dornan, a lawyer for landlord Clay Point LLC, said the company had planned to ask…

    Associated Press
  • Embraer to sell 50 E-175 jets to Republic in $2.1 billion deal

    Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's third largest commercial planemaker, said on Wednesday it booked a firm order from U.S. The deal, which will be included in Embraer's order book for the third quarter, is valued at $2.1 billion, the planemaker said in a securities filing. The planes will be operated…

  • Play

    What the Fed Meeting Means for Bonds

    Janet Yellen & Co. are expected to hint at their timetable for raising interest rates. Here's how investors should prepare ahead of the meeting.

    WSJ Live
  • Mortgage Rates Hit 3.00% APR (5/1 ARM)

    $225,000 for $949/month. No points. No obligation. Get multiple mortgage offers in minutes. Can't hurt to look. Rate quotes are Free!

  • Here's What Mark Cuban Wishes He Knew About Money In His 20s

    Cuban is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban is generous with his advice. When we asked him what he wishes he'd known about money in his 20s, he said:

    Business Insider
  • SHOE COMPANY: Our CEO Just Disappeared And Most Of The Money Is Gone

    "and like that: he's gone." This is an actual headline from a company press release: "CEO and COO disappeared, most of the company's cash missing." (Via FastFT) In a statement, German-based shoe company Ultrasonic said its CFO,  Chi Kwong Clifford Chan, has been unable to reach the company's CEO,…

    Business Insider
  • Costco Stores in Canada to Stop Taking American Express

    “The credit card relationship between American Express and Costco Wholesale Canada will not be renewed when it expires” on Dec. 31, the company said today in an e-mail to Canadian customers. The message was attributed to Lorelle Gilpin, vice president of marketing and membership for Costco…

  • Billionaire Investor Says Chinese People Work Harder And Western Companies Could Face Deep Trouble After Alibaba IPO

    Michael Moritz, the chairman of VC firm Sequoia Capital, is a huge fan of Chinese internet companies and reiterated his enthusiasm for the Chinese market in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. The billionaire investor described the Alibaba IPO as a “major landmark event” that is as…

    Business Insider
  • Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More

    Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More Stocks were firm on Wednesday morning ahead of the FOMC meeting outcome. Tuesday’s rally may have sparked higher interest again, and investors are looking for bargains

    24/7 Wall St.
  • 6 Things Debt Collectors Wish You Knew

    The work debt collectors do is not popular, and has become increasingly derided by those who don’t like what we do or simply don’t know the facts about debt collection. Too often, debt collection is painted with a broad brush to create a portrait that isn’t accurate, and doesn’t properly educate…
  • Anyone With $40 Could Become A Millionaire

    1 simple Warren Buffett quote explains the key investing strategy that could create unimaginable long term wealth for you and your family.

    AdChoicesThe Motley FoolSponsored
  • Boeing may have outfoxed Musk, but it could have bigger problems

    Elon Musk is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of the 21st Century, but he was outsized an old school aerospace giant. Boeing won the bulk of NASA’s contract for a space taxi.  One of the other companies vying for the deal is SpaceX, the company headed by Tesla’s Musk, will get a…

    Talking Numbers