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To-Do Lists Don’t Work

| June 19, 2012

by Jim Bruce

Recently Daniel Markovitz wrote “To-Do Lists Don’t Work” for the Harvard Business Review blogs.  I found the posting to be a good discussion of why we all wrestle with making our to-do lists work and decided to share it as today’s Tuesday Reading.  Markovitzis president of TimeBack Management and the author of A Factory of One.

He argues that to-do lists inevitably set us up for failure and frustration for five reasons:

1.  The Paradox of Choice.  Our to-do lists typically have tens of entries – mine is around 20 that are written down but some of these have multiple entries of sub-tasks.  Yet research has shown that we can only handle – i.e., the choice of what to do next – about seven options before we’re overwhelmed.  Markovitz says that looking at a 58-item to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode:  checking your email.

2.  Heterogeneous complexity.  When your list contains items that will take three minutes and those that are much longer, you invariably focus on the shorter items for the psychological payoff that you get when you finish a task.

3.  Heterogeneous priority.  When your list contains activities of varying priority, you take care of the “highs” and ignore the “lows” until they show up as “hight,” often without you having adequate time to do the work.

4.  Lack of context.  To-do lists, with only three-five words for each item, make it difficult for you to determine the work required.  For example, how long will it take you to do the task?  With just the list you are always asking how long and how much time do I have available.

5.  Lack of commitment devices.  To-do lists don’t prevent you from choosing the more pleasant tasks over the most important ones because they lack a commitment device that locks you into a course of action you might not make if you made the decision to work on that task at that moment.

Based on these observations, Markovitz argues that we should move from to-do lists to what he calls “living in your calendar.”  By this he means taking tasks as they arrive, estimating how long the task will take, what information you need, etc., and scheduling this work on your calendar with annotations as to the details of the work.  As you do this, be sure to leave unscheduled time each day for the crises du jour.  

The doing here is hard.  You’ll find that everything won’t fit.  But, it’s reality.  And it represents a truer picture of your availability to take on new tasks.  Said differently, it will force you to say no, to decide what work will be delayed, etc.  And, ultimately, that will be good for you as it will help you set better expectations about what you can accomplish in the time available.

So, do give yourself time to reflect on this approach to your to-do list and give it a try.


.  .  .  .     jim