To-Do List Not Working? Try This Productivity Tactic Instead

To-Do List Not Working? Try This Productivity Tactic Instead

Are you feeling overwhelmed by your workload? Confused about where to focus your efforts? Lost amid an endless cascade of projects, tasks, and responsibilities? 

Just create a list! 

It’s probably among the most tired productivity advice on the web. Don’t get me wrong, it can work if you do it right. It’s a potentially great technique if you use a project management tool like Trello or Airtable, which allows you to organize and prioritize tasks based on your own criteria. 

The problem is that like any productivity tactic, a to-do list doesn’t work for everyone. For some of us, it’s little more than a distraction, a band-aid to slap over our real problem. Instead of actually getting things done, we end up wasting time thinking about getting things done. 

We sit there pontificating amongst an endless sea of checkboxes and list items, heedless of the fact that we’re still no closer to taking command of our workday.

For others, a to-do list can quickly spiral out of control. As the things that need to be done pile up, the list quickly transforms from a productivity aid into a terrifying, incomprehensible hydra. Confronted by the sheer volume of what we need to get done, we freeze. 

Somehow, we wind up more stressed than if we hadn’t bothered with a list in the first place.

How You Can Organize Your Day Without Using Lists

If a list leaves you stressed, distracted, or drained, the answer might be to focus on routines rather than records.  

Try setting a concrete schedule for yourself, and stick to it. Organize your day into blocks, and set calendar reminders for important projects and tasks. Devote the largest volume of time to your highest-priority tasks, and schedule them for when you know you’ll have the most mental energy and focus. 

The best way to explain what I mean is with an example schedule.

  • Upon waking up, getting dressed, and eating breakfast, spend a bit of time on personal matters like paying bills, doing chores, etc. 
  • Upon arrival at the office, follow-up on emails and calls, tackle busywork, and review what you need to get done. Set a few achievable goals or priorities for the day. 
  • Focus on your chief priority for the day, and work until you’ve accomplished it. Rinse and repeat with any other goals you’ve set. 
  • After the workday ends, hit the gym. Aim to be there at the same time every day, and workout for the same amount of time. 
  • Upon arriving home, allot time to deal with any chores that need to be done.
  • Before going to bed, review your schedule for the following day. 

The above approach is simple, streamlined, and focused. It reduces complexity, and instead prioritizes time management over task management. It might not work for everyone, but for those who can’t quite stomach the idea of lists. 

If done right, a to-do list can be an excellent productivity aid, a means of taking control of both your personal and professional life. At the same time, it’s not a technique that works for everyone. If you’re the kind of person for whom lists simply do not work, don’t worry. 

It simply means you need to take a slightly different approach.

About the Author

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.

Brad Wayland
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