To Do Or Not To Do? That Is the Question

To Do Or Not To Do? That Is the Question

Do you really need a to-do list?

In the age of personal optimization, when books like The 4-Hour Workweek peddle the idea that you could be superhumanly productive if you just had the right tools, the question is almost blasphemous. Of course you need a to-do list. How else are you supposed to know what to work on during that 15-minute gap between practicing your TED talk and going to your CrossFit class?

I’m being sarcastic, of course, but the idea that every busy person should have a to-do list is so baked into our culture that the first Palm Pilot back in 1997 had a button just for that. The fetish lives on in today’s smartphone app stores, where there are literally thousands of list-making and to-do apps to choose from.

Some of these apps are quite nifty, and lists do have a place in our lives. There’s even a book called The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, which argues that doctors can save lives by adhering to checklists when they see patients. In case you haven’t found a to-do app you like, I’ve listed a few of the best options below. But what I’d really like to do in my first Voice of Xperience column is take a look at the fundamental reasons people use to-do lists. I want to sort the good reasons from the bad, and ask whether there might ultimately be better ways to think about managing our workload and our commitments.

The List List: Recommended To-Do List Apps for your Smartphone
Any.do www.any.do
Astrid www.astrid.com
Apple Reminders www.apple.com/osx/apps/#reminders
Clear www.realmacsoftware.com/clear/
Fetchnotes www.fetchnotes.com
Good To-Do goodtodo.com/
Remember The Milk www.rememberthemilk.com/
Taskforce www.taskforceapp.com/
Todoist todoist.com/
Wunderlist 2 www.6wunderkinder.com/wunderlist

Thoreau once said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” My own attitude boils down to this: beware of all enterprises that require a to-do list. And when you do engage in a project so complex that you have to start a list, don’t let the list itself consume you.

Let’s talk first about the kind of stuff people put on to-do lists. It’s never the actions that would really make a difference in your life—things like “Change careers,” “Finally learn Italian,” “Do something nice for my significant other,” or “Plan for retirement.” Rather, it’s the little stuff you feel like you have to do to meet your day-to-day obligations to your employer or your family. Things like “File expense report,” “Finish PowerPoint deck for Tuesday’s meeting,” and “Buy milk.”

The traditional argument for maintaining a to-do list is that if you don’t get such items out of your head and write them down, you’ll suffer the constant mental stress of trying to remember them. (Psychologists have a name for that: the Zeigarnik effect, the nagging feeling that you’ve left a task incomplete.) You won’t have a “mind like water,” to quote one of productivity guru David Allen’s favorite phrases, and you won’t be ready to focus your full attention on each task.

That’s true, as far as it goes. Unless you have a photographic memory, which nobody really does, you aren’t going to be able to keep your whole grocery list in your head. So by all means, write stuff down. Just be aware that if you only put quotidian tasks on your list, and you spend all your time executing those tasks, you’ll never get anything important done.

Here’s where the to-do list debate smashes into that other “productivity” tool that rules so much of our lives: e-mail. Every time-management system ever invented comes with its own set of dictates about dealing with your e-mail. But almost all of them start with having a separate to-do list—or as many as 43 of them, in the case of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (one for every day of the coming month and every month of the year).

In GTD, emptying your inbox goes like this: Delete the unimportant e-mails. Archive the ones with information you might need later. Act on the requests that can be executed in two minutes or less, then delete those messages too. Translate everything else into an item on a to-do list.

I follow this procedure myself, but I am none too happy about it. Yes, I get a little spurt of dopamine for every e-mail I delete, and a big one when I reach inbox zero. But what have I really accomplished in the end? Nothing, except … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com.

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  • Marilyn Rogers

    Hi Wade, I would encourage you to take a look at the LifeTopix iOS app. LifeTopix includes the basic to-do list, but also includes a feature called the Quick Inbox. This way, when you’ve decided to add items from your email into your to-do list, you can add them to one of two buckets (soon or someday) — and you can set an “act by” date. Furthermore, when you’re ready to act upon these items, you can convert them to tasks, notes, appointments, reminders, projects, trips, visitors, events (hosting or attending), shopping lists, or gifts. This way, you’ve captured the idea, but you’re not required to know how it’s going to look at the end (or its priority) until you have time to focus on it.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Marilyn, I’ll take a look at LifeTopix. If you’re trying to stick to the GTD system, having an easy way to convert an e-mail into a to-do item would is a big help. On the other hand I’m cautious about these all-encompassing apps that promise to help you with every part of your life, which might ultimately divert more of your time to “time management.” My point in this column was that it will usually work out okay if you ignore your lists and apps and just do what you *feel* like you need to be doing right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.j.roush Jamie Roush

    OK, now I’m going to worry about which fate my emails to you about family vacations are going to suffer!

    Seriously though, I’ve spent a lot of time looking to-do list apps recently and I find them all inadequate for my own professional need, which is managing the work flow of patient care in the hospital. I don’t want to just create lists, because scrolling through them doesn’t help me visualize how I should manage my time. I want an app that helps me manage my workload both in terms of priority and timeliness but I desire somekind of visualization of what I am doing now and how it relates to all the things I will be doing 10 minutes and 12 hours from now. To do lists just aren’t dynamic enough for me. I need an app that compliments my mental map of my work day and lists aren’t organic enough.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Jamie, your emails are always top priority for me!

      I’m not surprised you haven’t found a good to-do list for your role on the hospital floor. What you’re asking for is way beyond the features of any app I’ve seen.

      What you’re talking about almost sounds closer to an industrial control system. It would have to be plugged into the hospital’s EMR and it would have to update itself, so that you wouldn’t have to spend time writing stuff down. It would need to know which patients are where and what condition they’re in. It would need a sense of where you are in your day, perhaps by pulling in data from your smartphone and your calendar. It would need to be able to predict which patients are going to need attention in 10 minutes or 12 hours. It would need to know when to interrupt you, and it would probably need speech-to-text and text-to-speech interfaces.

      It might be possible to build a program like this but it would be huge challenge. Right now only a human brain can juggle all of this stuff at once. Checklists are important in medicine but more as references, to make sure the right procedures get followed…It may be that the whole idea of the to-do list is a bad match for your environment, where things are changing all the time.

  • dawdler

    The Checklist Manifesto is not really a “to-do list”. Check lists are different than to-do lists.

    I agree with your thesis – a lot of times the to-do list becomes the ends, not the means.

    These days I only use two things to manage “to-dos”. I use “flag for follow up” in outlook because it’s SO easy and quick and the email becomes a pseudo-task. Very effective.

    And I have a personal “to do list” in Remember the Milk but it’s not trivial stuff like “file expense reports” – rather, it’s a bucket list of cool things that I want to do someday but may never start if I don’t remind myself. I like my to do list to be inspiring. :)

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      That’s interesting, dawdler. Almost every e-mail client has some kind of feature for flagging e-mails. (In Gmail, it’s a star.) A system where you archived but starred every e-mail requiring followup might be just as good as a to-do list, as long as you remembered to review and act upon the starred items every so often.

      • dawdler

        What I like about Outlook (I don’t know what other apps do) is that the “To-do list” feature aggregates both actual tasks AND flagged emails as “to-dos”. So a flagged email becomes a pseudo task.

  • Richard Wolfe

    Dear Wade,

    Great article, we teach people in what I call GTD Lite, which looks much like your stripped version of email centric task management. To support this even better when driving/cycling (we are Dutch) or simply enjoying life away from a keyboard, I developed the Braintoss app (now iOS only) to drop your thoughts straight into you inbox (in one click). I believe it is a worthy addition to your list (especially as it is not a ToDo list but the easiest way to support your method ;). See braintoss.com.

    Cheers, Richard

  • Carla Frett

    Nice article. Here I would like to put my thoughts about the apps that I have been using and that is non other than the task management tools from Replicon.

  • Thomas

    Thanks for a great post. I’d also recommend that you take a look at TimeSheet Reporter at http://www.timesheetreporter.com (NB: I’m affiliated), which makes it possible to track the time that you actually spend on your to do items, and in that way see how effective you are.

    Cheers,