The Problem With To-Do Lists

by Scott - 11 Comments

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To Do Lists are great for making you feel productive, but they’re not always an effective way to accomplish your goals or lead your best life…at least the way that I was approaching them.

Until about 2 weeks ago, I always approached to do lists in a linear fashion. I’d prioritize my list by putting the most important and difficult tasks at the top. Few things gave me more satisfaction than drop-kicking tasks off my list one by one until I’d accomplished every single thing I set out to do. Three cheers for feeling productive!

But what I realized is that although this method is very good at helping me to get things done, it doesn’t always lend itself to getting the right things done. The linear methodology’s inherent flaw is that it doesn’t have an allocation framework…

I want to simultaneously be a good human-being, son, brother, friend, and employee amongst other things. All of these aspirations require effort. Yet it’s nearly impossible to make sure I allocate enough energy towards all of these ambitions using a linear To-Do-List. Some days I’d be a super-productive employee, but a crappy friend. I’d get everything done, but neglect crucial areas of my life.  Worst of all, most of the time I wasn’t even cognizant of the imbalance.

In short, linear to do lists are very helpful for focusing on the short term agenda. But they often fail to promote progress towards and keep you accountable to your long term goals.

I’ve spent the last 2 weeks structuring my days (to-do-lists) using Peter Bregman’s annual focus framework and the difference is ridonkulous. The premise is pretty simple: pick 5 areas of your life that you want to focus on for the next year and use them as a framework to structure each day. By making sure that the majority of your efforts are geared towards these 5 areas, you’ll make progress while maintaining balance in the areas of your life that are most important to you.

Practically this looks like the following:

Using A Google Docs Presentation, I created a template with 6 boxes: 5 reflect the areas of my life that are most important to me and the 6th is for “the other 5%.” The other 5% encompasses the odds and ends we encounter on a daily basis like laundry or putting air in your uni-cycle tire.

Each morning, I spend 5 minutes filling in these boxes with all the things I want to accomplish that day. Within each box, I prioritize the tasks using the difficulty/importance measure I used in medieval times (2 weeks ago). The result is a clear picture of not only what I want to accomplish, but where I am spending my time. This visual representation acts as an accountability measure to promote balance within each focus area. If I’m neglecting a certain part of my life I’ve deemed important, it’s glaringly obvious.

I use this daily planner to guide each day. Once I accomplish a task, I emulate the essential task cross off by highlighting the text in blue. At the end of the day, I highlight all of the unfinished tasks in red and move them into tomorrow’s planner. Coloring the text provides  an excellent visual representation of where I’m making progress as well as where I need to pick it up.

Maintaing Consistency:

Sound a bit laborious? Well that’s because it is. But running a hundred miles an hour doesn’t mean much if you’re going to wrong direction. So I’ve given myself permission to spend time doing this every day in order to make sure my labors are focused on what’s important.

I use my trusty ol Alarm Clock Pro to prompt a reminder to do my daily planner at 6am each morning so it’s the first thing I see when I open my computer. It’s much harder to forget when it’s staring at me in the face.

I also use a stopwatch to make sure I give the planning period a full 5 minutes. This helps me avoid the trap of rushing through it as quickly as possible just to say I did it instead of giving this practice the diligence it requires to be effective and meaningful. I’m smiling right now because it makes me think of a long period in my life where I  said prayers at a Usain Bolt pace each night just to say I said a prayer. Over time all practices run the risk of becoming a checkbox. The stopwatch helps me maintain the integrity of the practice.

In sum – Checklists are only as effective as your ability to prioritize and allocate your efforts towards things that are important to you. It may seem a bit simple, but defining and drawing 6 boxes has moved mountains for my focus. I suggest you give it a try as well as pick up Peter’s book 18 minutes which I must credit for this practice.

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11 comments, add to the conversation.

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      1. ScottBritton

        Thanks Scott. I’ve heard so many good things about it, but haven’t yet checked it out. I needed a little push ; )


        1. Mark Breidenbach

          Thanks, Scott. Just found your blog yesterday. Great stuff here. Have you started using Trello for your Daily Planning? If so, do you use a new board everyday when you do your six boxes? Looking to try something similar and wondering if you had any advice. Thanks.


          1. ScottBritton

            Thanks Mark. I actually haven’t started using trello. I’m still using a google powerpoint template i created. If you email me – jscottbritton at gmail – i can share it with you

  2. Mahdad Taheri

    This is an interesting approach. I’m going to try it out this week with Alarm Clock Pro. I’m not sure if it will replace my pretty structured habits already that are still more list based. Also not too crazy about the google spreadsheet approach vs. an app that i can access online/offline to get to the info. But you’re looking at higher level life balance here.

    What seems to be the critical thing is to a) always be aware of your goals/things missing in your life, so that your daily routine is aligned with them and b) be as consistent and productive as possible by constantly reviewing and re-prioritizing your daily plan. I think your approach is great for balance but maybe not the best for productivity?

    That being said your argument is that you need to know where to be productive which I totally agree with. With so many things to do it’s easy to lose track. Here’s how I manage my productivity

    Still planning how I can effectively use a virtual assistant like you’re doing with Zirtual.


    1. ScottBritton

      Thanks for the insight.

      In terms of productive I find i’m way more productive with this approach because it makes it easier to prioritize with a to do list broken out. Prioritizing is the most important thing for productivity because it makes us do what’s important, instead of what’s easiest and can compel a false sense of productivity

      I now manage this same exact ritual with trello breaking each category out into a separate card. I’m loving it


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  4. Debbie

    Where can I find the companion article mentioned above from 2 weeks ago?

    Within each box, I prioritize the tasks using the difficulty/importance measure I used in medieval times (2 weeks ago). The result is a clear picture of not only what I want to accomplish, but where I am spending my time. This visual representation


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