To Do Or Not To Do? That Is the Question

Xconomy National — 

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
Apple Reminders
Good To-Do
Remember The Milk
Wunderlist 2

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 moving some bits of information from one bucket to another. I may have eliminated 250 e-mails from my inbox, but now I have another 15 items on my to-do list, on top of the dozens of items left over from the previous day.

The very length of the list becomes a deterrent to completing any of the tasks on it. My impulse is to throw up my hands, ignore the whole list, and go do my actual work (which, in my case, is writing).

Which brings me to the core of my gripe about the cult of the to-do list. For the most part, the items that pile up on our lists are not actual work. They are distractions from work. Real work is the thing your boss hired you to do—or, if you’re self-employed or entrepreneurial, the thing you hired yourself to do. It’s your core personal project, whether that’s designing new things, or helping other people, or bringing your creative powers to bear on a hard problem that needs solving.

Maybe this sounds backward, but the way I see it, the to-do list can all too easily become a counterproductivity tool. Things would be okay if each of us only had two or three items on our lists each day. Then a to-do list would be a helpful little reminder.

The problem is that nobody’s list is that short. Thanks to our constant connectivity, there’s a never-ending flow of incoming assignments and requests from the other people in our lives. Each one is so small in itself that it would seem uncooperative to say no. But by the end of the day, the list of small things is so big that there’s no time left for our core projects.

The crisis is compounded by the seductive nature of the to-do list, considered as a piece of technology. There are some really gorgeous and elegant to-do apps out there (see the list on the previous page), and I am just as impressed by them as the next geek. (Currently I use Apple’s built-in Reminders app, because the to-do items I put there instantly show up on all my Apple devices.)

But I worry that all of the design innovations that go into these apps—all of the clever tricks that reward “engagement” and keep users coming back day after day—threaten to make the to-do list into an end in itself. Put another way: a sophisticated to-do app can make you feel like you’re being productive when, in fact, you’re just crossing items off a list of stuff that wasn’t important in the first place.

What’s the solution? I’m not suggesting that you throw away your smartphone or delete your to-do apps. We need them, if only as crutches. But even the best app or system can’t tell you, in the moment, what you should be doing. In the end, I think you’ll usually just know. It will either be that annoying thing that has to get done or your boss or your spouse will kill you, or it will be digging in on that bigger task that actually means something to you—the one that doesn’t feel like work because it’s your core project.

Here’s something telling. When David Allen finally gets to the question, in Chapter 9 of Getting Things Done, of how to decide what to do in any given moment, his answer has nothing to do with lists or systems. It’s this: “Trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your intuition.”

Obviously, your intuition will be more accurate if you’ve spent some time thinking about your plans and priorities. But there’s more than one way to cultivate a “mind like water,” and one of them is to spend less time grooming your task lists and more time immersed in whatever it is that you love doing.

One thing is for sure: that item sitting at the top of your to-do app is almost certainly not the most important thing you could be doing right now.

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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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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. :)

    • 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

    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 (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.