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Why ToDo lists simply don’t work

Ok, this is not entirely true. Do you want to create the illusion of making progress? Do you want to keep yourself busy? Pad yourself on the back at the end of the day for getting lots of stuff done? Ok, then keep a ToDo list. On the other hand, if you want to make meaningful progress, work on things that truly matter, and stay focused, I suggest you ditch these lists.

ToDo lists make us believe we are being super productive, but that is usually an illusion. Most of the time, the things we write down in these lists are the things that are top of mind. Newsflash: this is the urgent stuff, but not necessarily the important stuff. Big difference.

The other major issue with these lists is that even though they are supposed to make us feel good as we are getting the well-deserved dopamine while crossing items off of our list, there is an annoying cognitive bias that we can’t take out of the equation: the planning fallacy. This bias highlights that we are unable to correctly estimate how long would something take and therefore we overcommit ourselves or set ourselves up to failure as soon as the day begins.

How many times have you actually completed everything on your ToDo list? I don’t know about you, but I used to feel like a total failure at the end of the day, pretty much every day, when I used ToDo lists. If you often get to 4pm in the afternoon and say ‘gosh, where has the day gone?!’ then ToDo lists are definitely not for you.

Ok, crap, so what to use instead?

1. The Eisenhower matrix

A slightly better tool to use is the Eisenhower matrix, which forces you to differentiate between urgent and important stuff. At least, that is a good start. Ideally, you try to focus on things that are ‘important and urgent’, then it is your choice between the ‘urgent but not important’ and the ‘important but not urgent’. As for the ‘not urgent and not important’, the best practice is to outsource, drop or just schedule it for when it becomes more urgent.

My challenge with this matrix though is that it still doesn’t tell me how I should structure my days and what to do when I have 30min or 2hrs during the day for some work. And what happens when you seem to have everything in the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant all the time? If you are an entrepreneur, this is more often than not is your reality.

I have created my own version of this matrix, which is a 3x3 grid and part of my productivity system. This might not work for everyone, but the point is that you test and try different things until you find what works for you.

2. Your personal OKR system

OKRs is one of these things that everyone believes they understand and use correctly, but that is unfortunately rarely the truth. It is just like everyone thinks they are quite self-aware, when in reality, we are all just scraping the surface. In the LX system, we index over 400 personality traits, and that is just to offer a catalyst to the self-awareness journey. But I digress.

So just as companies have an OKR system, if used correctly, we can also create a personal OKR system to capture our goals both in our personal and work life. It will guide us towards our main goals and keep us focused on a quarterly, weekly and daily basis (read more here). Combined with the Eisenhower matrix, or any other tools you may decide to use, your personal OKR system will bring clarity into what is truly important as it puts every deliverable in the context of your goals.

When people miss this piece, what I often see is business without clarity on what a certain task is going to get you and if it brings you closer to your goals. Does it sound obvious? Yes, maybe, but when it comes to the day-to-day, it is easy to lose sight of this concept and get sucked into whatever is urgent for others and so become reactive to their demands vs. staying focused on your priorities.

3. Energy management vs. time management

Finally, paying attention to your energy levels throughout the day is the first thing you need to do before designing your week and days. In order to do important work, we need to design our days in a way that we can get into the flow. For me, I am the most focused in the mornings, therefore I try to do all my writing, thinking, and anything else that requires deep focus before midday. After 2pm, I tend to have most of my calls, admin jobs, reading, and anything else that I can do without over-caffeinating myself.

I like Paul Graham’s (co-founder of YCombinator) concept of the maker’s vs manager’s schedule. With the maker’s schedule, you allow yourself to do deep work by blocking longer stretches of time in your calendar. Even if you don’t have the luxury to do it every day, try and protect that time a few times a week. If you run your life on a manager’s schedule, however, your calendar is filled with a bunch of meetings and short bursts of work time. If your work would require you to run on a maker’s schedule but instead, yours looks a lot more like the manager’s schedule, you are likely to feel that you can never get anything done and you feel exhausted every day.

‘Can lists be useful then at all?’ you may ask. Yes, of course, but to give you the typical management consultant response: it depends. ;) Here are the two instances when you will most likely be able to use lists effectively:

1. Checklists. It is exactly what it sounds like: things you need to buy from Amazon (because there is always more stuff there we can’t live without), people to call over the weekend, grocery shopping list, etc. You get the gist.

2. Future projects / ideas lists. This is a brain dump of all the things you want to / hope to do one day. If you are a fan of David Allen (Get Things Done), you know what I am talking about. Putting down ideas on a piece of paper or adding them into a Google sheet makes your brain feel less cluttered and it brings you peace of mind that you won’t forget any of your great ideas.

The bottom line is, lists can be great but only if you know when and how to use them. They can’t replace a good productivity system and in fact, they can make you feel more overwhelmed, less effective, and less accomplished at the end of the day. Quite frankly, my main reason for trying to use ToDo lists has been my desire to be able to use all my fancy stationery. As you have probably guessed, I still have a lot of nice notebooks lying around, all untouched.

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