Why don’t to-do lists work? I know this is a question people are thinking about, because I saw it in a news headline this week. But the story didn’t have the answer.
People try to make this a complicated subject, but it really isn’t so complicated. No system, no mechanism, no way of thinking will allow you to do more things than you have time to do. A to-do list is just a list of ideas you had. What do you expect it to do?
When people say their to-do lists don’t work, all it means is that, no matter what they do, many of the things on the list don’t get done. They didn’t get done because there wasn’t that much time. There is no magic in a to-do list that allows you to stretch time.
The only power a to-do list has is the power to channel your thinking. A to-do list prompts you to think in linear terms for an hour or two so you can do one task after another. But this works only if you keep the list short. How short? Ideally, just enough for an hour or two. A to-do list should be so short that you usually finish it the day you write it. If it always seems to be longer than that, you have made it too long. You are not being critical enough about the tasks you add to the list.
A long to-list doesn’t channel your thinking — it forces you to think in terms of branches, of one possibility versus another. It doesn’t help you focus. Just the opposite — it makes focusing impossible. The longer a to-do is, the harder it is to think just about the task you are actually doing right now.
A to-do list works only if you write down only the tasks you will actually do. Every time you add a task that you end up not doing, it is a distraction, a point of confusion, a waste of time and energy.
Of course, you cannot predict exactly which tasks you will do and which you will not do, but if your to-do lists have been giving you problems, it is safe to say that you could guess better than you have been. Is the task similar to ones that you have failed to complete in the past? Does your gut feeling tell you that you don’t have time? Is it something you dread the thought of doing? If you can answer yes to any of these three questions, do not write the task down. Either do it the moment you think of it, or forget about it. Make a real decision.
Making a to-do list work is as simple as that. Write down only the tasks that you will actually do, and your to-do list will work like a charm. Write down twice as many tasks, the way most people do it, and your to-do list will come back to bite you. If you give yourself too many things to do, none of the complex time management systems you hear about will help. But if you are asking yourself what you can actually do, then most of the time, you won’t even need a list.