Are to-do lists a big waste of time?

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to get done, it can be incredibly satisfying to create a to-do list. To-do lists are a great way to get all your tasks out in front of you so that you can begin to figure out which one you’ll tackle first. The mere act of putting all your jobs in one place makes them seem easier to overcome.

Having said that, I must ask: have you ever actually cleared a to-do list? Do your to-do lists make you any more productive?

At their worst, to-do lists are long and unwieldy, cluttered with lots of unrelated tasks. The tasks typically aren’t prioritized, leaving the task-doer to scan the list for the easiest and least unpleasant chores while leaving the rest undone. That’s when the to-do list begins to resemble a to-don’t list.

And because life never stops moving, those to-do lists never seem to go away entirely. There’s always another item to add, which can leave the to-doer with the feeling of never having accomplished anything.

Shane Parrish is pretty down on to-do lists. From his article, To-Do Lists Are Not Effective: Here’s What You Should Do Instead:

It’s really easy to add things to a to-do list. They get longer and longer but they don’t actually get you more time. You end up doing things just because at some point they were added to your list, not because they are still relevant….

To-do lists encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we’re not as discriminating with our time as we should be and, worse, we’re not thinking. It’s easy to add something to your list, it’s hard to say no. Yet saying no is the key.

Yep. Today’s software makes it so easy, and even fun, to add another item to the list. In a culture that tends to value work-for-the-sake-of-work—a culture in which busyness has become a virtue—having a long to-do list makes one an automatic mensch.

Parrish’s solution? Don’t make to-do lists. Make schedules instead:

Scheduling forces you to confront the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. If you want to do something, you schedule it. This forces you to choose between doing one thing over another because you can’t just add it to an ever-growing list that becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule the stuff that needs to get done. You need to schedule family time and downtime. Yes, you need to schedule downtime or you’ll always be on and that’s a recipe for a short life.

To me, this rings true. In my efforts to Win the Day, I’ve found that there’s a certain inherent deception in the to-do list. Suppose I sit here on a Sunday evening and make a to-do list for Monday morning. My list includes going for a five-mile run, calling my mom to check in, writing four thank-you notes for birthday presents, going grocery shopping, getting a haircut, and visiting the DMV (without an appointment) to renew my license.

Dang, it sure felt good to add all of that to my to-do list! I feel productive already. But do you think I’ll get it all done on Monday morning? Me neither.

I tend to schedule my tasks instead because scheduling forces me to face the reality that I am a creature who lives within the constraints of time. I create time blocks for all my work-related projects and personal tasks in my Mac Calendar.

If I want to get a haircut, then I create a one-hour block in my calendar. Sure, there could be a long line and the outing could take 1.5 hours instead, but at least one hour is a reasonable estimate.

Cooking dinner? Depending on what I’m making, I’ll need to create a 30-minute or one-hour time block.

Going out to lunch with a friend who talks a lot? There’s no sense in deluding myself; I need to create at least a two-hour time block for that one.

You get the idea. Now, I do make one exception. When I know I’m going to have a block of time (say, on a Saturday afternoon) to do a whole bunch of little tasks, then I’ll create a time block called “To-Do List” and then create a list of the items I can reasonably hope to complete within that block. I’ll also prioritize the list so that I’m tackling the most urgent tasks first within that time block. This can be an exhilarating way to knock out a whole bunch of back-burner items in an hour or two.

But mindlessly adding all my obligations to a to-do-list? No way. Thank you, Shane Parrish, for confirming what I’ve long suspected: To-do lists are most often a waste of time.