Should You Use A To-Do List?

Time to settle an argument: Kevin Kruse doesn't like to-do lists. Sir Richard Branson does. Who's right—the billionaire or the productivity expert?

My friend Kevin Kruse, who was kind enough to include a bit of my advice in his book 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, argues that to-do lists are a waste of time:

To-do lists should be called nagging wish-lists. A series of tasks you hope to accomplish, without a specific plan as to when you'll get them all done. How many items on your current to-do list have been on there for several days? For weeks? Months? (p. 30)

In response, mega-entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson writes on his blog:

The crucial part of a to-do list is in the name – you need to actually DO the things on your list. The act of writing your tasks and thoughts down is useful in and of itself, as it helps to organise your thoughts and give you focus. However, if you then ignore your own advice and don’t follow up, the lists will lose most of their power. Quite often you will only do 50 per cent of things on to-do lists because, on reflection, only 50 per cent are worth doing. But by putting things on lists it will help clarify what’s worth doing and what’s worth dropping.

They're both right, but to understand why, we need to look at the larger picture of how we manage our work and our time.

Capture Everything

Branson, Kruse, and productivity guru David Allen all agree that writing things down is enormously important. When you get the ideas and obligations that are floating around in your head down on paper, you're more focused, less distracted, and less likely to lose track of something important.

When you put tasks and plans down on paper (or digitize them), you can also make better decisions about what matters most, how to organize your work, and how to allocate your time.

What if you don't write things down? When everything is jumbled together in your head, it's far more difficult to make decisions based on the criteria you care about.

Instead, you're more likely to choose the most most urgent, simplest, or most interesting tasks, rather than those that will have the greatest impact.

Picking this “low-hanging fruit” from a long to-do list can give your brain a dopamine hit, but the long-term consequences for your leadership are disastrous.

Spend all day doing whatever pops into your head, and you'll feel busy, overwhelmed, stressed, and less than optimally productive.

Is there a better way?

Live In Your Calendar

One of the best pieces of advice I've gleaned from Kevin's book and podcast is to “live in your calendar, not your to-do list.”

If something is going to get done, it needs to go on the calendar at a specific time.

Kruse writes:

The first problem with recording tasks on a to-do list is that it doesn't distinguish between items that take only a few minutes and items that require an hour or more. So when you randomly look at your list and ask “Hmm, what should I tackle next?” You are very likely going to pick the quick tasks, the easy items, not necessarily the thing that is most important. (pp. 30-31)

If your list is short, and you have time to do everything on the list today, this isn't a huge problem. Do your list in whatever order suits you, whenever you feel like it throughout the day.

But that's not the reality—if you have time to do everything on your list, you haven't listed everything, and you're keeping work in your head. And honestly, you'll never feel like doing some of what's on your list.

Turning tasks into appointments with yourself is powerful, but it's an approach I've resisted for a long time because it conflicts directly with the “Getting Things Done” system.

Why GTD Doesn't Work for Me

Productivity guru David Allen, in his best-selling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, says it's essential to “capture” everything into a “trusted system” that you can work from.

Allen doesn't recommend scheduling specific tasks, and instead encourages a flexible, “dynamic” approach to deciding what to work on moment by moment—in other words, the opposite of what Kruse recommends.

For years, I've seen my digital task app (ToDoist at the moment) as this “trusted system” where I should record and organize all of my ideas, then check throughout the day to see what I need to do next.

The only problem? I've always hated looking at my to-do list. I've always tended to avoid it as much as possible.

I know it contains important obligations and plans, but I just hate looking at it. It's stressful.

Kruse explains this stress:

Third, to-do lists cause unnecessary stress. Indeed, when we carry around a long list of undone items it's one way to remember them. But it's also a constant reminder, a constant nagging, that there are many things we still need to deal with. No wonder we feel overwhelmed. (p. 31)

For me, that's precisely the problem. I don't like constantly looking through all the things I could and should be doing, and I don't pick wisely because of the stress it creates.

So, at most, I look through my to-do list once a day.

But you know what? Maybe that's the smartest approach of all. Maybe my failure to implement GTD properly reflects an underlying truth about how we make decisions about our work.

Decision Fatigue and The Trouble with To-Do Lists

The “decision fatigue” phenomenon, discovered by psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team, explains why large to-do lists are exhausting to manage.

Every time you make a decision, you're drawing on a finite store of mental energy (or what Baumeister calls “willpower”).

This is true for major decisions like hiring and firing staff, but it's equally true for tiny decisions like “Which email should I deal with next?” The more decisions you make, the more mentally exhausted or “ego-depleted” you become.

Make too many decisions too early in the day, and you'll waste valuable brain bandwidth that you could be using for more important work.

So throughout the day, looking at your to-do list over and over again and asking yourself “What should I work on now?” is actually counterproductive. That's a decision you should make in advance.

When you plan your schedule‐and thus, what specific tasks you'll work on—in advance, you'll still suffer decision fatigue, but if it's the end of the day, so what? You've already been productive, and now you're set up for an ultra-productive tomorrow.

Does this mean you don't need an electronic to-do list? Not at all, and this is where my advice diverges from Kevin's.

Kruse says to put all of your tasks on your calendar. But Branson raises a good point:

The crucial part of a to-do list is in the name – you need to actually DO the things on your list. The act of writing your tasks and thoughts down is useful in and of itself, as it helps to organise your thoughts and give you focus. However, if you then ignore your own advice and don’t follow up, the lists will lose most of their power. Quite often you will only do 50 per cent of things on to-do lists because, on reflection, only 50 per cent are worth doing. But by putting things on lists it will help clarify what’s worth doing and what’s worth dropping.

I'd go a step further than Sir Richard.

Instead of treating your to-do list as a set of things you must do as soon as possible, but only if they're important enough—surely a recipe for perpetual decision fatigue if every I've seen one‐ see it as an inbox.

That's right—your to-do list is merely an inbox. Everything you could do, should do, or need to do should initially go into this inbox so you can process it, the same way you process email.

Triage and Filtering

Kruse and Branson are both right that not everything we write down is important enough to actually do. Allen is right that we need to be the ones to decide what to work on, and that this requires some flexibility.

But I believe we can be more disciplined and intentional in our approach, and it begins with clear priorities.

The first act of leadership is to decide what matters.

In my courses, I teach instructional leaders to develop a written leadership agenda (Branson probably has something similar in his notebooks).

Your leadership agenda should contain a clear list of:

  • Issues and projects that are your top priorities
  • Issues and projects that you actively reject as priorities—these may pop up, but you'll resist them
  • Emerging issues that you need to monitor

This agenda is your mental filter as you review your vast to-do list.

As you triage your task “inbox” and organize all of the tasks you could be working on, keep your agenda in mind. If something doesn't fit with your agenda, it's easy to handle: organize it into your system for future consideration, but don't schedule it.

Let's say you have an idea for how to improve your school newsletter. You could easily accomplish it in an hour or two, and it would be a real improvement, but it's just an idea. It's not a good fit with your leadership agenda.

Write it down, sure. Put it in your task inbox. Consider it as you triage your inbox. Put it on an “ideas” list in your task app so you don't keep thinking about it. But don't schedule it.

Then, as you go throughout the day, don't even look back at your massive to-do list. It's full of things you may or may not actually need to do.

Instead, look at your calendar. No, do more than look at it—obey your calendar, because it's the keeper of all of your priorities and the decisions you've made about how to spend your most precious resource: your time.

Special thanks to David Allen and Sir Richard Branson for serving as major inspirations and virtual mentors through their books and other media. And thanks to Kevin Kruse for inviting me to contribute to his book and participate in the ongoing discussion about how we can do more of the work that matters most.

If you're a school leader who wants to have a greater impact with less stress, join my High Performance Habits online professional development program here »


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